North Korean recalls horrors of forced labor camp

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Shin Dong Hyuk has no problem recounting the time he spent in a North Korean concentration camp up until just over three years ago, it was all he knew.

Shin escaped from North Korea in January 2005 after spending more than 22 years in a North Korean work camp. Sitting in state Assemblywoman Ellen Young's (D-Flushing) office last Thursday, Shin said he still struggles with memories of what he went through, but knows that he must continue to tell his story so that the thousands of people estimated to be in more than a dozen forced labor camps in North Korea will have a chance at the freedom he knows today.

"I'll be able to think about my own personal future after all of the North Korean camps are closed," he said, speaking through an interpreter. "Until then, I must give all my energy towards accomplishing that goal."

Shin, 25, said he lived the first 22 years of his life locked in what is known as Camp No. 14 in Kaechon, North Korea, working for more than 12 hours a day without any idea that a world existed outside the camp's barbed wire fences. Shin received a basic education at the camp and though he never knew why his parents were brought to the prison, he was told repeatedly he had to work to wash off their sins.

In 2004, a man was brought to Shin's living quarters after being arrested in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and told Shin of the world outside the walls.

At the camp, Shin said he had seen the public executions of those who attempted to escape, but he was not deterred.

"From the first time I learned about the outside world to the time I escaped was about six months," he said.

He said he joined another man in attempting to climb over the camp's barbed wire fences in January 2005. Shin succeeded, but his partner did not.

"He got caught on the barbed wire fences and did not make it," he said.

It took more than a month of traveling through mountains, doing odd jobs and sleeping in abandoned houses for Shin to make it to the safe haven of China from North Korea. He said the most difficult part of the journey was trying to understand the freedom those around them had.

"The day after I escaped from the camp is when I experienced the greatest shock," he said. "When I first came out, I saw all these people, and they could wear whatever they wanted, they could buy whatever food they wanted and to me that was a very strong indication of what freedom was."

Now three years removed from the experience, Shin has written a book, "Escape to the Outside World," which chronicles his experiences inside the camp. He has also been speaking out internationally about his experiences to raise awareness of the existence of such camps. He received a citation from Young, who called his courage admirable.

"Mr. Shin endured more pain and hardship than any of us ever will," Young said. "This is a human rights issue that transcends local, state and federal politics. We must collectively become a moral compass to fight this injustice."

Shin, who is in the United States on a speaking tour after being invited by human rights group Liberty in North Korea, said he was humbled.

"When I first came to the United States, I just intended to tell my story," he said. "But all of a sudden, sitting here and holding a citation from the New York state government, I feel like there is a greater burden to do more."

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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