Freedom from North Korea’s Grasp – Escape from Camp 14

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In North Korea, there are more than twenty prison camps that hold political prisoners. If someone is taken to a camp, their family goes with them along with three generations after. The actual number in the camps are unknown, but it is estimated that there are between 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners being held in them. They are so isolated that the inmates don’t even know the face of their ‘Dear Leader’. Shin Dong hyuk (Dong-hyuk) is the only prisoner born there known to escape.

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a prison camp known as Camp 14. There he lived for all of his childhood through his early twenties. In the camps, Dong-hyuk’s birth was arranged by guards who awarded his father with a woman for his good work as a mechanic. He stayed with his mother until he was taken to work at the age of twelve. On his right hand, the middle finger has been cut off at the first knuckle: the punishment given for dropping a sewing machine in the garment factory of the camp.

When Dong-hyuk was fourteen, his mother tried to escape and was punished by being publicly hanged . He was interrogated and tortured because the guards thought that he knew about his mother’s escape attempt. He was left with scars where they burned him on his back and left arm. Dong-hyuk thought that his mother deserved to be hanged; he was angry for the agony he had endured because of her.  He had a hard time grasping the concept of forgiveness, and he never learned the word ‘love’. This made it hard for Dong-hyuk to forgive his mother. He said that in the camps, to ask for forgiveness was to “beg not to be punished.” 

In the garment factory, Dong-hyuk worked with an older man who had seen the outside world and wanted to escape. At the beginning of January of 2005, while they were collecting firewood, they ran to the outer rim of the camp. It was bordered by an electrified, barbed wire fence. His friend got hung up in the wire, but Dong-hyuk was able to step over his friends body to free himself.  “I could afford little thought for my poor friend and I was just overwhelmed by joy,” he says about his first moments of freedom. From there he traveled north to China. At the end of his journey he ended up in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. In an interview, Dong-hyuk said, “I think God was helping me.”

In the camps, his birthday never mattered, so four of his friends threw him a  party at T.G.I. Friday’s on November 9. He said, “I was very moved.”

Blaine Harden wrote a biography of Dong-hyuk entitled Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. This story might be non-fiction, but it is so different from what we know as life, it is easy to think of it a fiction. Consider reading this amazing tale of the only known person to escape from Camp 14.

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2. Hardin, Blaine. Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. New York: Penguin Group, 2012. Print.