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Meeting Shin Dong-hyuk

18 May 2012

12:01 PM

18 May 2012

12:01 PM

‘I did not know about sympathy or sadness. They educated us from birth so that we were not capable of normal human emotions. Now that I am out, I am learning to be emotional. I feel like I am becoming human.’

You may have heard of Shin Dong-hyuk, the man who feels he is becoming human. He is the only person born in a North Korean concentration camp to have escaped to the West. He was 23 when he fled. Ten years before, he betrayed his mother and older brother’s escape plans to a camp guard in the hope of winning favour. He was pleased when they were executed, pleased that a threat to his safety had been eliminated. North Korea breeds children like Shin.

Shin walks into the smart lobby of the Bloomsbury Hotel in London, where I am interviewing Blaine Harden, the veteran foreign correspondent who has recorded Shin’s story in Escape from Camp 14. Shin strides towards Harden, but is soon distracted by a member of his retinue. Harden, who is protective of Shin, excuses himself and goes over to the attendant public relations people. I watch as they pore over Shin for a couple of minutes.

Shin is nearly 30. He is short, maybe 5 and half feet tall. He is immaculate in a well cut suit and sharp black shoes. His hair is neat and he carries himself with dignity. He is slim but there is evident strength in the line of his shoulders and the set of his hips. This is not the protein-shake variety of physique, the kind that takes up too much space on the Tube and develops diabetes. It is the lean, wiry type that can withstand 10 degrees below zero without a coat. There is something about Shin, probably the knowledge of his past, that, I am ashamed to admit, makes me shift
uncomfortably in my very comfortable seat. There is nothing quite like being confronted by one’s own indifference.

Harden returns and we talk about Shin. Most North Korean defectors struggle to adapt to the furious modernity of South Korea (and to a lesser extent the United States). But Shin, damned by Camp 14, has had an awful time — falling in and out of employment, drifting among and around people. Harden speaks candidly:

“He has come a long way as a person. His emotional balance is so much greater now than it was when we started talking [in 2008]. But I think he has issues with empathy and trust. It’s inconceivable that he would be a glad-handing politician kind of person. He’s just not. But he’s sweet. He can be funny. But he is wary of everybody. And he still has a difficult time distinguishing between constructive criticism and complete betrayal. [When interviewing him for the book] I realised that we would not get where we wanted if I criticised him. So I never did, about anything.”

The book was “very difficult” to produce because Shin “does not tell stories”. He can’t tell stories because he has never been taught. He embodies the tension between nature and nurture, and the results are horrific — a grotesque union of Orwell, Huxley, Golding and extreme social Darwinism.

Shin was born because the camp guards decreed that his mother and father should ‘marry’ — a grand term for the privilege of copulating five times a year. (All other sex is prohibited on pain of death, unless a guard fancies a quickie. If pregnancy ensues then both mother and child are shot, while the guard is free to keep on keeping on.)

Harden says that the authorities sanction marriages to provide a “supply of compliant labour” and an army of desperate informants. Shin was bred for the lowest form of servitude in the Korean state. Harden and Shin collaborated to “make sure that the impossible policy choices on North Korea are informed by an emotional understanding of the human cost of dictatorship.”

Has Shin touched western consciousness? The book is an international bestseller and Harden tells me that it has raised awareness in America. But impediments remain. South Korean governments of all stripes refuse to confront North Korea, oscillating between accommodation and marginalisation. Harden explains why:

“It has to do with how South Koreans live now. They live in virtually another era because of economic growth and an obsession with education, a desire for success narrowly defined as the right school, the right job, the right house, the right car. So just as a matter of how people’s lives are directed, it’s not on the problem of North Korea. But even if they obsessed about North Korea, I don’t think it would make a difference because of the leverage that North Korea continues to exercise.”

The military and nuclear threats have created what Harden calls “the most extraordinarily long-living extortion known to man.” Diplomats call North Korea the “impossible state”. The Kim regime banks on us caring more for North Koreans than it does. The caring West, and particularly the United States, usually sends food and medical aid to North Korea. The aid is immediately confiscated by the regime and distributed among its security forces, perpetuating humanitarian crisis among the general population. Hunger is the Dear Leader’s most reliable servant; the people don’t have the energy to revolt.

Shin journeyed north from Camp 14 through a land of want and ignorance. He survived by luck and theft, joining a band of Dickensian urchins who pillaged wherever they went. It is plain from Shin’s account that the regime’s economic control has degenerated into nothing. Black markets thrive, supplied by goods smuggled across the Chinese border. The Kims tolerate this nascent capitalism
because the country’s broken economy would disintegrate without it. The dictatorship is adaptable, which explains its tragic durability.

But Harden says that other pillars of tyranny are crumbling as state education is undermined by malnutrition. “Defectors come to Hanawon (a resettlement area in South Korea). They’ve weighed and measured them all over a decade and the young men are about 5 inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts. The same is true, but to a lesser extent, of the women. Most nutritionally deprived North Koreans are cognitively impaired.”

This is beginning to affect the security services. Shin bribed his way into China by giving ragged soldiers a few packets of biscuits. CIA assessments say that the regime’s greatest challenge is to find enough recruits who were not mentally damaged by infant malnutrition.

The regime should collapse without the support of millions of loyal jackboots, but the Kims’ propaganda remains very effective. Harden explains that “it’s very similar to National Socialism in that it preaches a concept of a pure race protected by the Kims from corrupt foreigners. The argument is that the hunger and misery wouldn’t exist if weren’t for these jealous, scheming neighbours trying to ruin us. It works. One of the things I learned from the teachers at Hanawon is that they often have a riot on their hands when they tell the students that it was the North which invaded the South and started the Korean War.”

China does not fall into this category of rapacious foreigner (although there is historical enmity and mistrust between Beijing and Pyongyang). Western powers know that intractable China is the key to opening North Korea; then there is the knowledge that every North Korean, even when free of the Kims, will embark on Shin’s struggle to ‘become human’.

I felt low as I left Harden. But, nearing the door to the street, I bumped into Shin walking in the opposite direction. I caught his eye and he offered me a broad smile, the sort of smile that is the preserve of sentimental films. There is hope.

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