Born and raised in a North Korean prison camp, Shin Dong-Hyuk recalls how life for those imprisoned was to “work until the moment they die”.
However, Shin, now 29, managed to escape from a North Korean prison camp to China in early 2005. Out of all defectors, he is believed to be one of the only people to have achieved such a feat.
In a talk hosted by the International Relations Society on Tuesday, Shin recounted his upbringing: “As a child, the first thing we learnt as the rules we had to abide by in a prison camp. We also learnt from our teachers, who were also our prison guards, that they were humans and we were sub-human, like animals, and that we should be grateful that we are actually alive.”
Shin was born in 1982 to parents who had been brought together by camp authorities: marriage to a fellow prisoner was “a reward for the hard work that they put in”. He added that marriage was “the biggest honour that prisoners in prison camps could get”.
However, aged just fourteen, Shin was forced to watch his brother and mother brutally executed in front of him. “I remember that my mother and older brother attempted to escape, but they failed. As a result, my father and I ended up in the prison of the prison camp. I spent seven months there and during those months, I was subject to severe torture. After those months, my father and I were let out, as we watched my brother and mother public executed.”
He recalled: “We watched it from the very first row.”
Shin went on to emphasise the horrors of the camp: “I dare to compare the North Korean prison camps to Nazi prison camps. Perhaps not everyone will agree with me, but when you see the images of dead bodies in Nazi prison camps and North Korean prison camps, they look the same to me.
When asked on his perspective on the international aid to North Korea, Mr Shin replied: “Many North Korean defectors like myself are against any kind of international aid. Nothing reaches the ordinary people. All the food and materials given goes straight to the hands of the military.
“The international community can still help the people dying of hunger by putting pressure on the regime, through the rigorous monitoring of monetary aid.”
For Soo-Min Chung, Mr Shin’s translator and a doctorate student at St Cross, said: “When he spoke I had to struggle to keep my composure. I think the fact that we can communicate in the same language and that we are of the same age made me even more emotional. The only difference to our lives was that he was born North of the border and I was born in the South. But that has been the difference. It makes me angry with the North Korean regime.”
Janwillem Scholten, President of the IR Society, said: “Many people in Oxford and beyond are passively aware of the oppressive nature of the North Korean regime and the atrocities it inflicts on its own people”.
He continued: “Mr Shin’s remarkable and truly unique story was an extremely strong reminder of the tragedy that is still happening in North Korea at this very moment – as well as of the realisation that it is possible to ultimately escape it. I’m sure it will have a lasting impact on all those who attended.”
Mr Shin was brought to the UK by the Christian Solidarity Movement, a human rights advocacy campaign.