Shin Dong-hyuk was born, in November 1982, at Camp 14, a kwan-li-so — a North Korean forced labor camp for “political prisoners,” though he had committed no sin, except by North Korean standards.
Shin was there because he committed the crime of being the son of his father, whose two uncles fled to South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). By dictatorial fiat, that meant that the uncles’ relatives had to be imprisoned, isolated from the public, for three generations. He never asked his mother, Jang Hye Gyung, how she ended up in the camp — and she never told him why.
Unlike Jewish families in Europe who’d had lives before the Holocaust, Shin knew only Camp 14. He was, by his own account, not fully human. The camp is 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, about the size of the city of Los Angeles. His home was a one-story building shared by four families, where Shin and his mother had one room to themselves and slept next to each other every night on a concrete floor.
His primitive life taught him little beyond survival — Shin had no concept of love, compassion or morality. His mother was not his guardian — she was competition for food. For Jang, Shin was not a son to be loved and cared for — he was an impediment to survival. Shin would often eat his mother’s meals; it didn’t occur to him that she would go hungry as a result. When young, he would scrounge around the room as she worked the fields. If she came home to find that food was missing, she would beat Shin with a hoe or shovel, often severely.
Shin had an older brother, He Geun, but he barely knew him. When Shin was 4, He Geun moved out of the house — mandatory at age 12 — and into a dormitory near his worksite. Shin also had a father, Shin Gyung Sub, who lived in the camp but whom Shin also barely knew.
Shin’s parents’ “marriage” was arranged by the bo-wi-bu — as a reward to his father “for his skill in operating a metal lathe in the camp’s machine shop,” journalist Blaine Harden writes in “Escape From Camp 14.” Aside from five nights per year when he could be with his wife, Shin’s father lived in a dormitory at the machine shop.
[Excerpts from Jewish Journal article authored by Jared Sichel]