Every morning when I wake up I thank God for the life he has given me: that includes the personal liberty I enjoy in America. A recent episode of 60 Minutes drove home the blessings of freedom. The episode (available here) tells the story of one man’s escape from the horrors of a North Korean prison camp.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born in Camp 14, one of North Korea’s six political prison camps. It is estimated these camps—the world’s largest network of political prison camps—hold between 150,000 and 200,000 people. According to World Magazine,1 many of the inmates are Christians. Though North Korean officials deny the very existence of these prisons, others believe Camp 14 to be located within 50 miles of Pyongyang, the capital city, and that it contains some 15,000 prisoners.
Shin lived in Camp 14 for the first 23 years of his life. He knew nothing but the camp and its brutal rules. An electric fence surrounds the facility. Guards shoot anyone who attempts escape as well as anyone who hears talk of escape and fails to report it. Prisoners, including the children, are tortured for the slightest infractions.
In his interview with 60 Minutes, Shin reported that the inmates perform heavy labor in very difficult working conditions. The people in these camps are fed only cornmeal and cabbage. Relentless hunger leads them to eat insects and rats just to survive. Ultimately, hopes of filling his stomach motivated Shin’s escape. He equated freedom with food.
Most of the camp inmates are family members of people who rebelled against or challenged the legitimacy of the North Korean Communist government. For example, in Shin’s case, his uncles defected to the south during the Korean War. Using what it calls “Three Generations of Punishment,” the North Korean government seeks to eliminate whole family lines by punishing even the children and grandchildren of those so-called “wrong-thinkers.” As reported in the 60 Minutes episode, not even mass-murdering Communist dictators such as Stalin and Mao used such a cruel form of generational punishment.
Shin escaped from the camp by crawling across the body of another inmate who had been electrocuted after touching the fence. Shin travelled north into China, ultimately reaching Shanghai where he found sanctuary by hiding in the South Korean consulate office. Shin now lives in South Korea and has travelled to America and given talks at human rights conventions.
Hearing Shin’s story makes the Fourth of July celebration all the more poignant for me. This Independence Day, I’ll be expressing even deeper gratitude for the freedoms I enjoy as an American citizen.
Next week in part 2 I’ll discuss how growing up in Camp 14 shaped Shin Dong-hyuk’s worldview.
1. Mindy Belz, “Keeping Them in Chains,” World, March 9, 2013, 9–10.