Shin Dong-hyuk was 14 in 1996 when prison guards suspended him from the ceiling of an underground torture chamber by his hands and legs, all because his mother and brother had tried to escape. The flames of a charcoal fire scorched his back; a steel hook pierced the flesh of his groin; he lost consciousness.
Shin is the only known inmate to have escaped from one of North Koreaâ€™s top-security prison camps, where he had lived since birth (his parents were among the few granted conjugal rights).
He escaped by clambering over a would-be escapee whose dead body provided a safe channel through an electrified wire fence. He was 23 when he first glimpsed the world outside.
Shinâ€™s terrible story is told in a new book by the journalist Blaine Harden, â€œEscape from Camp 14.â€ It describes the atrocities he witnessed in detention â€” the executions of his own mother (hanging) and brother (shooting) and the fatal beating of a nine-year-old girl â€” as well as his own tortures and struggle for survival.
Like many of the 200,000 prisoners of the North Korean political prison camps, Shin was not incarcerated for anything he did. His uncles had allegedly collaborated with South Korea during the Korean War.
Shin fell afoul of North Koreaâ€™s â€œguilt-by-associationâ€ law, which allows for the collective punishment of as many as three generations of the family of a â€œpolitical enemy.â€ Some inmates â€” like Shin â€” are actually born in the prison camps, to live and die in captivity with no prospect of release.
For decades, international human rights groups and the United Nations have documented these abuses. The current U.N. special rapporteur for North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, has described the humanitarian situation in North Korea as â€œdireâ€ and has reported an â€œabsence of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rightsâ€ for the people of North Korea.
Although the U.N. Security Council may ignore its special rapporteurs, it would be much harder for it to do nothing if faced with the conclusions of a formal commission of inquiry. Several of the international criminal tribunals were preceded by such commissions. Could such a commission work for North Korea and force the United Nations to act?
Even if North Korea continues its blanket denials and refuses to cooperate, the evidence is available. Among authoritative works built on the accounts of former detainees is a 2003 report, â€œThe Hidden Gulag,â€ by David Hawk. It published striking satellite imagery of the political prison camps showing fencing punctuated by guard towers at the outer perimeters. A second edition was released a few weeks ago.
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