Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

He escaped from hell and lived to tell the tale

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His first memory is of an execution.

Thus begins this extraordinary story of survival, despair, courage and hope -- among other applicable adjectives -- of Shin Dong-hyuk (born in 1982 as Shin In Geun).

Shin is the only person known to have been born into and then escaped from "a total-control zone" internment camp in communist North Korea.

He was four years old when he saw the execution, "too young to understand the speech that came before that killing, when he walked his mother to a wheatfield near the Taedong River, where guards had rounded up several thousand prisoners," writes the book's American author, Blaine Harden, a reporter for the PBS show Frontline and a contributor to The Economist magazine.

"Excited by the crowd, the boy crawled between adult legs to the front row, where he saw guards tying a man to a wooden pole."

At dozens of executions in years to come, he would listen to a guard telling the crowd that the prisoner about to die had been offered "redemption" through hard labour, "but had rejected the generosity of the North Korean government," Harden writes.

He witnessed the executions of his own mother and brother.

"Although he would not admit it to anyone for 15 years, he knew he was responsible for their executions," Harden writes.

Shin even watched his teacher, a camp guard, beat a six-year-old girl to death in front of her classmates.

"The teacher was in a bad mood as he began searching pockets," writes Harden, who conducted extensive interviews with Shin in both South Korea and the United States.

"You bitch, you stole the corn? You want your hands cut off?" Instead, he ordered her to the front of the class and told her to kneel. Swinging his long wooden pointer, he struck her on the head again and again.

Battered, bloodied and unconscious, she was carried home to a pig farm (part of Camp 14) not far from the school by Shin and several other classmates.

She died later that night.

Subsection three of Camp 14's third rule said: "Anyone who steals or conceals any foodstuffs will be shot immediately."

Then one day came the chance to flee.

Nine years after his mother's hanging, Shin squirmed through an electric fence and ran off through the snow. It was Jan. 5, 2005.

"Before then, no one born in a North Korean political prison camp had ever escaped," writes Harden, a resident of Seattle and the author of Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent and A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia.

"As far as can be determined, Shin is still the only one to do it. He was 23 and knew no one outside the fence."

Within a month, Shin walked into China. Two years later, he was living in South Korea.

Four years later, thanks to the financial support from a couple in Columbus, Ohio, he took up residence in southern California. For a time, he was a senior ambassador at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an American human-rights group.

He later quit the group.

Shin, who lives in Washington, D.C. and Seoul, is still speaking out about his former life to church groups and other organizations.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands remain in North Korea's pitiless labour camps.

But, as Escape from Camp 14 demonstrates, they can't crush every human spirit.

Martin Zeilig is a Winnipeg freelance journalist and a longtime contributor to the Free Press.

Escape from Camp 14

One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

By Blaine Harden

Viking, 205 pages. $28.50)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 J7

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