Prison camp escapee: North Korea won’t change its repressive ways

Editor’s Note: Shin Dong-hyuk is a human rights advocate and subject of the best-seller “Escape From Camp 14,” which tells his story about being born and raised in a brutal political prison camp in North Korea. Shin is the only man known to have been born in and to have escaped such a facility. He’s the founder and executive director of the group, Inside NK where he raises awareness about North Korea’s human rights abuses. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

Story highlights

Shin Dong-hyuk was raised in a political prison known as Camp 14

He has been labeled as "human scum" by North Korea

North Korea denies human rights atrocities, existence of political prison camps where he was born

CNN  — 

In North Korea’s utopian society, the very words “human rights” do not need to exist – because it’s so perfect, the regime maintains.

The North Korean regime controls and monitors the usage of the very words. The concept is not even taught. I had never even heard of the term “human rights” when I was in North Korea.

Shin Dong-hyuk is the subject of a bestseller about escaping from North Korea's infamous prison camp.

It also strongly denies the existence of the political prison camp system throughout the country.

It maintains this position even though I was born in the most infamous, political prison camp in North Korea: Camp 14. Even now, there are people who are born into a life of an inmate in a political prison camp.

READ: ‘Escape from Camp 14,’ a survival story

North Korea also denies committing human rights violations, threatens and intimidates defector activists working to raise awareness of human rights issues, and attacking and criticizing those who have testified during the United Nations Commission of Inquiry’s investigation, calling these defectors “human scum.”

North Korea has also launched personal attacks on me, labeling me “human scum” and releasing a statement that my testimony is all based on lies.

The dictatorship in North Korea has never been honest or truthful for more than six decades it has been in existence.

Could North Korea change?

The North Korean dictatorial regime should not just emptily deny that these political prison camps exist. If they are truly honorable and fair they should immediately allow an international inspection delegation, comprised of myself and organizations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, or the United Nations, to be able to conduct on-the-ground visitations to the political prison camps. These delegations must include political prison survivors like myself and other defectors.

READ: Defectors describe horror, heartbreak of labor camps

Only recently did they concede that “labor detention centers” exist, but solely for the incarcerated to have their lives improved “through their mentality and to look on their wrongdoings.”

Earlier this year, the UN published a report on the human rights situation in North Korea, through the Commission of Inquiry that was established last year.

It was followed by a special North Korean human rights side event during the recent UN General Assembly in New York in which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the newly appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, and the Foreign Ministers of Japan and South Korea demanded improvements in North Korea’s human rights record.

To counter this, and perhaps fearing a challenge to its stability and of losing the initiative, the regime adamantly opposed and obstructed any discussions at the UN of a resolution regarding its rights record, as well as the issue being brought up at the Security Council.

I believe ultimately the regime is using diplomatic tactics to deflect pressures from the international community regarding its nuclear ambitions, missile tests and human rights violations.

Regime travels freely as North Koreans starve

Some say that the most recent actions and conciliatory gestures on the part of the North Korean regime can lead to the revival of six-party talks and progress on the nuclear issue. But these talks have happened many times before, and the regime still goes ahead and conducts nuclear tests in a bid to become a nuclear power. This has showed the abject failure of the objectives of the six-party talks to denuclearize the peninsula.

Even if negotiations were to be restarted, the attitude of the regime must change first – most importantly by ceasing its provocative behavior.

PHOTOS: The scale of North’s camp system

However, though there may be a temporary détente in tensions if the regime were to participate in restarted talks, it would be difficult to expect a fundamental change in attitude on the part of the North Korean regime.

Also, the human rights issue must be on the same level as the nuclear issue and dealt with together, and for this to happen, the human rights issue must be included as an integral part of six-party talks.

The international community must show continued interest and become actively involved.

The dictator’s family travel freely, while ordinary North Koreans cannot enjoy any freedom of travel. People are dying of hunger while the North Korean dictator wastes money on building a useless golf course and earns money from Western tourism, which both angers and saddens me.

The dictatorship in Pyongyang says its citizens chose the system in North Korea through their own will and that they are happy.

But there is no place, no country on this Earth where the people would knowingly choose a system that starves and kills its own citizens and be happy.

READ: ‘Abundant evidence’ of crimes against humanity


The North Korean government website Uriminzokkiri released videos about Shin Dong-hyuk this week, calling his testimonies lies. The video featured a man, Sin Kyong Sop, whom Shin recognized to be his father. In the video, which has English subtitles, Sin denies they lived at a prison camp.

In response, Shin Dong-hyuk released this statement:

“My only ‘sin’ against the North Korean dictator is that I told the entire world about the suffering of the political prison inmates in the political prison camps. My only ‘crime’ against the dictator is that I escaped from the political prison camp.

I love my father. Through this, I seek my father’s forgiveness. The dictator is holding my father hostage.

No matter what the dictator does to my father, they cannot cover my eyes; no matter what the dictator does, they can not cover up my mouth.”