Shin Dong-hyuk lived his whole life in a North Korean prison camp. After his escape from Camp 14, Shin spent about a month making his way through North Korea, making friends with the homeless underworld and hopping on and off trains between cities. Eventually, he reached the Tumen River, bribed a border guard and crossed the river into China.
He spent more than a year laying low in China. Well-fed but working for measly pay in people’s homes, he was wary of attracting attention from the government, which typically repatriates North Korean defectors, claiming they are “economic migrants.” If the Chinese government were to recognize defectors like Shin as humanitarian refugees, it would be prohibited, under international law, from returning them to North Korea.
In February 2006, after moving around much of China, Shin ran into a Korean-born journalist in a restaurant in Shanghai. The journalist listened to — and believed — Shin’s story, then smuggled him past Chinese police and into the South Korean consulate, which provided Shin diplomatic immunity.
After six months living at the consulate, Shin was flown to Seoul; soon thereafter, he moved to a government-run resettlement center. He struggled to adapt to life in the free world. His self-described growth has been like the “slow growth of a fingernail.”
Shin said he knows of no silver bullet for the North Korean crisis. But what he does know, and what disappoints him, is the world’s ignorance of and seeming indifference to the 21st century’s gulag — the same kind of indifference that allowed Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot to carry out similar political persecutions and mass imprisonments.
[Excerpts from Jewish Journal article authored by Jared Sichel]