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Shin Dong-hyuk: “passionate human rights campaigner and an ordinary young man”

Youngeun Koo reports from the first of EAHRNK’s “North Korean Memoirs” events.

On Tuesday 16 September, the UK had the rare opportunity to meet Shin Dong-hyuk in person. Shin is so far the only person known to have successfully escaped from Camp 14, a ‘total control camp’ in North Korea. Organised by European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK), the talk marked the start of EAHRNK’s North Korean Memoirs series, which will document and disseminate the ‘unedited’ voices of North Korean defectors.

L to R:  Michael Glendinning, Shin Dong-hyuk, and Chung Soomin
L to R: Michael Glendinning, Shin Dong-hyuk, and Chung Soomin (photo Kim Dasun)

Whoever encounters it, Shin’s story is beyond one’s comprehension. Born and raised in a prison camp, Shin was subject to and witnessed countless abuses against humanity including backbreaking labour, torture and the execution of his family members. In 2005, aged 23, Shin escaped the camp where death was the only exit. Now living in South Korea, Shin has become one of the most prominent advocates for human rights in North Korea.

Shin began the discussion with a brief account of his recent visit to a small town in Romania. He described the special connection he felt with the young people he met in the town due to the similar histories of the two countries. Instead of recounting the details of his experiences in North Korea, Shin then opened the floor to the audience who came up with a wide range of questions.

One of the most interesting things discussed at the talk was the concept of freedom. Answering a question about how he now feels about ‘food’, which symbolised freedom for him in the camp, Shin explained that there might be a huge gap between what freedom means to those who are starving and how the West perceives this notion. In Camp 14, freedom for him was ‘freedom to eat, freedom to choose what to eat, and freedom to eat as much as he wanted’. Under extreme circumstances where one’s survival is not ensured, freedom in abstract forms makes very little sense, Shin said. However, he held the belief that under the right conditions, people naturally grasp its broader meaning without being taught. Shin might be right, as his story itself is the very journey of an individual who’s strived to expand substantive freedoms that both him and others enjoy.

Shin’s view on the international community and its potential to bring about actual change in North Korea was also something to ponder upon. As some readers remember, in February, the UN published a comprehensive report that highlighted systematic and widespread grave violations of human rights in North Korea, and Shin was one of the main witnesses whose testimony contributed to the establishment of the report. However, despite the report’s wide coverage in the media, not much has changed since then. Expressing his frustration, Shin said: ‘The more I learn about the world history including Holocausts, the less optimistic I become about the future of the world. The international community has never managed to stop a single massacre in history.’ He recounted one of his first meetings with the UN where he wept and begged them to save his fellow inmates in North Korea.

Much of the debate on food aid in North Korea struggles with a similar dilemma. After nearly twenty years of food aid by the UN’s World Food Programme and private relief groups, we are well aware that the support has not always reached the most vulnerable. In the same vein, thanks to the accounts brought out by a number of defectors, we are enlightened about the grave human rights violations in North Korea. Perhaps, what needs to be done now is to revise the strategies deployed by nation states and international organisations collectively to find ways that can create more desirable outcomes?

Shin Dong-hyuk's talk on 16 September
Shin Dong-hyuk’s talk on 16 September (photo Kim Dasun)

The talk didn’t have a set of pre-defined themes as it was aimed at offering a platform for North Korean exiles so they can have their voice and better represent themselves. The discussion, therefore, developed organically and allowed the audience to see different aspects of Shin’s life. And yet, it is not unimportant to be aware that North Korea is a closed society where its citizens have very little understanding of how the country is run on a national level. From talking to a number of North Korean defectors, I’ve learned that their knowledge of the country generally does not go beyond the boundary of their village/town. Considering this, it could have been useful to offer this context to the audience at the beginning to help better engage with Shin and appreciate his insights into North Korea’s prison camps. However, overall, the talk offered the very unique opportunity for the audience to meet Shin as an individual: Shin was both a passionate human rights campaigner and an ordinary young man who blushed when talking about love.

EAHRNK’s next event of this series will be on 29 October and bring two female North Korean defectors together. It will be particularly interesting to see how these two people’s experiences are similar and different from each other, and what role their gender played in North Korea and during the escape and their resettlement in two different countries, the UK and South Korea.

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