Raised as a slave, escaped prisoner tells his story

A North Korean soldier stands guard on the country’s fortified border. Many try to cross, but few are successful © Getty Images

Born in a North Korean prison camp, Shin In Guen was destined to live as a slave. But, despite great suffering, he escaped – the first person ever to do so. Now, a new book tells his story.

Shin In Guen was born to be a prisoner. His parents were inmates of North Korea’s notorious Camp 14, a huge prison valley, about thirty miles end to end, which held 15,000 people considered to be enemies of the country’s communist regime. Shin was born inside the wire.

But the boy defied his destiny. Through luck, courage and determination, he escaped his prison, and his country. In Escape From Camp 14, to be published later this month by Mantle Books, journalist Blaine Harden tells his extraordinary story.

It starts with an execution. Shin was four years old as he watched a fellow prisoner being shot for breaking the camp rules. This is what you get, the inmates were told, for rejecting the generosity of the government, which has given you this second chance at a virtuous life.

But in fact, Camp 14 was no place for second chances. Forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions with little food or rest, prisoners died fast. Shin, and the other children born within the wire, suffered like the rest, eating rats to survive. During a search one day at the primitive school, a girl was found with five kernels of corn hidden in her pocket. In front of the class, the teacher beat her to death.

All the children were trained to obey and to believe in the strict discipline of the camp. When Shin heard his mother and brother one day, plotting to escape, he knew exactly what he ought to do: he told the guards.

The fugitives were quickly tracked down: but Shin’s part in their capture was forgotten. Along with his father, he was tortured brutally, just for having been part of the same family as the attempted escapees. At last, close to death, covered in burns and infected sores, he was taken outside to watch his mother and brother executed. At the time, he remembered, he thought they deserved it.

It was only years later, with the help of an inmate who had seen the outside world, that Shin decided to make his getaway. His companion was killed crossing the electric fence, but Shin was able to use the dead body as a bridge to cross the wire. Hiding in the woods, stealing and begging food, he finally managed to sneak across the Chinese border to safety.

Survivor’s guilt

Shin still bears the marks of torture on his body – but worse scars are in his mind. He blames himself for the things he did – the things he was forced to do in order to survive. He betrayed his mother. He left his father to die. Does he deserve to have made it out, when so many others did not?

This sort of survivors’ guilt is common, say psychologists, but no one could hold him responsible for the way he acted inside the prison. Labour camps and torture do more than just destroy the body – they distort the soul. The depraved North Korean system must bear all the blame.

You Decide

  1. How far would you go to survive, if you were in a prison camp?
  2. There are 15,000 people in Camp 14. Why do you think they don’t stage a rebellion?

Activities

  1. What would you say to Shin In Guen? Write a letter you might send to him having read some of his story.
  2. What is the world’s most notorious prison? Choose and research a candidate for the title and write a short guide to the place, explaining why it is the world’s worst.

Some People Say...

“Worse than breaking a person’s body is to break a person’s soul.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Well – I’m glad I don’t live in North Korea!
So you should be. Life there is very hard. But Shin’s story isn’t just about North Korea. It reveals important truths about the human mind.
Such as?
It’s surprisingly easy to build a system where people will behave with a shocking lack of humanity towards each other. The rules of good behaviour can be remarkably quick to break down.
Really?
The famous example of this is the Stanford Prison Experiment, where test subjects were randomly divided into prisoners and guards. Soon, the guards started abusing the prisoners, even though both sides knew no crime had been committed. The experiment had to be called off.

Word Watch

North Korea
North Korea has been under communist rule since the end of the Second World War, when the Korean Peninsula was divided into North and South by Soviet Russia and the USA. While South Korea is one of the world’s richest democracies, North Korea remains trapped under a Stalinist regime. Most people in the country live in extreme poverty.
Chinese border
The border between North Korea and South Korea is heavily guarded so most refugees from the country escape through China, crossing the rivers that divide the two countries when they freeze in winter, or in small boats in summer. They then face a long and dangerous journey into South East Asia before they can find passage to South Korea, which will grant them asylum.
Left his father to die
Shin does not know what happened to his father, a man who he barely knew. It is likely, however, that the father will have been made to suffer for his son’s escape.
Survivors’ guilt
Survivors’ guilt was first noticed in 1960s among Jews who had survived Nazi concentration camps. Camp survivors showed high rates of depression and suicide, and a tendency to blame themselves for surviving when so many others died.

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