Friday, November 22, 2013

North Korean Child Prisoners

On Monday evening I drove down to DC to meet with Margie for a very special evening. We had managed to get passes to listen to and meet Shin Dong-Hyuk, witness and survivor of Camp 14, the infamous political concentration camp; Suzanne Scholte, 2008 Seoul Peace Prize Laureate and chairman of the Defense Forum Foundation; and Pavel Klein, neurologist, at the Czech Embassy.
I never drive down to DC on week days because of the horrendous traffic but for this an exception had to be made. I got there early and was amazed to see how small the gathering would be. I counted only 100 seats.
Before long, our speakers arrived. Above is Shin, with a representative of the Czech Embassy. Shin has to be the most incredible person I have ever met. He is the only known person to be born in and escape from Camp 14, one of North Korea's most notorious camps. He escaped in 2005, aged 23, spent a month walking to China, was living in South Korea within two years, and then was in California four years after that. For the last two years he has been a senior human rights ambassador. My first impression of him was that he looked so young, far younger than his 32 years but when you get up close his friendly face has old eyes, rimmed with many lines, and you get a glimpse of the cruel hard life he has endured.
He had to watch many executions in the camp including those of his mother and older brother who had tried to escape. He and his father were tortured, held over a fire, as the guards tried to extract information from them. He had never known the emotion of love, or even the word, and never heard of God. He had been trained to regard his family as competition for food, never receiving any warmth from his mother or brother and only seeing his father five times a year, regarding him as a stranger.
It's mind numbing to try and comprehend what this man has been through, and I could only admire and respect him as I watched with awe at how he now interacted with people and talked of his past life. He looked so healthy yet from having started to read his book, I have learned that his growth is stunted through malnutrition, his arms are bowed from heavy labor, he has a finger tip missing, cut off by guards for damaging a sewing machine, he has scars and burns on his back from the fire he was held over with a hook piercing his skin to keep him in place, his lower legs have welt scars from shackles while hanging upside down in solitary confinement and burns from the electric fence as he escaped. His teeth have been cosmetically enhanced. It was a miracle that this young man had survived all this and was now standing before us bent on making us and the rest of the world understand what goes on in these North Korean camps.
He spoke through an interpreter, and when he suggested that we all went home afterwards and took some cold medicine because his interpreter had a cold. Everyone laughed and I was incredulous that he had a sense of humor, he was genuinely funny at times. All I could do was shake my head hardly believing what I was hearing.
Suzanne Scholte spoke for a while explaining what was being done to help and rescue the orphaned children from North Korea who make their way to China.
The photo above shows a group that were awaiting flights from China to the USA and South Korea where they would then lead free lives. They were all incredibly excited until guards suddenly swooped on them and the eight that don't have flags above their heads in the photo were grabbed and taken back to North Korea, where we can assume they ended up in the camps. Imagine their horror at tasting freedom for a fleeting moment and then having it so cruelly snatched away.
The above documents are examples of flyers that are sometimes dropped in North Korea. Money is often sent with them or DVDs or radios. They are attached to balloons and sent over the border.
 After everyone had spoken, we were allowed to go up to the front and meet the speakers. Most of us were at a loss what to say to Shim. He speaks some English but chooses not too, he's not really ready to come out of his shell fully yet, but he had plenty of smiles for everyone. He signed copies of his book for us and all I could do was gently squeeze his shoulder and say, "Thank God you're safe."

Some interesting websites here:
A brief history of Shin's life in the camp:
Free North Korean radio - click on the ENG button at the top:
Working for freedom and the human right of North Koreans:

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