Partying amid death and torture

By Peter Foster

Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman says he is in North Korea to "have fun''. Photo / AP
Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman says he is in North Korea to "have fun''. Photo / AP

Dennis Rodman, the former Chicago Bulls basketball player, does not appear to be given to self-doubt. But before setting off for his latest trip to Pyongyang, he should perhaps have taken a minute to look into the eyes of the only man to have escaped from a North Korean gulag.

Had he done so, it is hard to believe he would not have questioned the wisdom of his relationship with Kim Jong Un, the pudgy-faced North Korean leader who last week ordered his uncle Jang Song Thaek to be executed by machine gun.

As Shin Dong Hyuk quietly testifies, the purging and execution of Jang is the least of the crimes perpetrated by a North Korean regime that keeps more than 120,000 people in gulags and concentration camps such as the one where Shin was himself born 31 years ago.

Among those held prisoner is Shin's father, a man whom he scarcely knows. Nor does he know the nature of the supposed "crime" that led to his father's incarceration and forced labour for what will almost certainly be the rest of his life.

When we meet in Washington DC, Shin says he is "angry" with Rodman for refusing point-blank his request that he use his personal influence with Kim to improve North Korea's abominable human rights record.

"It has nothing to do with me," the 53-year-old Rodman had shrugged. "I mean, these things have been going on for years and years and years. I'm just going over there to do a basketball game and have some fun."

Asked to respond to Rodman, Shin does not rant and rave, but looks straight ahead for several seconds, apparently searching for an appropriate response to a remark of such obvious gaucheness.

"It makes me angry," he says. "To me, North Korea is not a party resort. Not the kind of place where one goes to enjoy oneself and 'have fun'. To me, North Korea is a country where people starve to death, where people are sold into slavery, where people die in imprisonment in political prison camps."

If Rodman was ever interested, the slave-labour camp where Shin was born is easily located on Google Maps; a clutch of huts and factories on the Taedong River, in the hills northeast of Pyongyang.

"To me, North Korea is not a party resort", says Shin Dong Hyuk.
"To me, North Korea is not a party resort", says Shin Dong Hyuk.

As he zooms in on "Kaechon Gulag Camp No 14", Shin observes that Rodman could pull the map up on his smartphone and show it to the North Korean leader as they share a glass of one of those expensive imported whiskies Rodman says Kim dispenses with such abandon.

Skimming over the landscape, Shin points out the barbed wire fences, and the collection of grey huts where he was born, the offspring of two inmates who, like animals, were allowed to "mate" for a few days each year for good behaviour.

In a few seconds he locates the detention centre where he was held and tortured as a 14-year-old after reporting to guards that he had heard his mother and brother discussing an escape plan.

Shin, who had been indoctrinated from birth to inform on fellow prisoners, thought he would receive an award, but instead he was tortured, along with his father, in case he held further information. The guards put a steel hook under his skin, so he could not move, and then held him over a charcoal fire until his skin bubbled.

Next he lingers briefly over an aerial view of the rice paddy that doubled as an execution ground for his mother and brother. Shin and his father were forced to watch as two stakes were driven into the ground, and the condemned pair tied to them before being shot.

At the time, Shin recalls with characteristic bluntness, he felt little emotional bond with his father, with whom he had almost no contact and so scarcely knew when in the camp.

But now - after several years living in South Korea and the US - he has begun to feel differently. "My thinking about my father has changed now that I've been living in the free world. While I was in the camp, quite frankly, I didn't think of him as my father. I thought of him as a fellow criminal." Shin adds that he has tried to find out more about him since his escape.

Last, there is the section of forest where, in 2005, Shin finally escaped while out on a firewood collection detail, crossing the high-voltage wire using the body of another inmate who died in the attempt to shield himself from the current.

Despite the psychological damage that comes with retelling a story made internationally famous by the book Escape from Camp 14, Shin now devotes his time to campaigning for the eradication of North Korea's prison camps.

"I hope that my work will help my father, who is left behind in the gulag, or my fellow prisoners left behind in the gulag, my family members left behind. So if it helps even a little bit it means that it's well worth it, and this is practically what keeps me going despite the psychological difficulties."

Like many people, Shin was initially hopeful that Kim Jong Un, who was schooled in Switzerland and so has had some taste of Western democracy, might prove a reformer, opening up North Korea as Deng Xiaoping did China after the death of Mao, but he has been bitterly disappointed.

"What I see is that Kim Jong Un is not at all concerned with the improvement of the economy of North Korea or the improvement of the lives of his people," he says. "What Kim Jong Un is concerned about is constructing facilities such as ski slopes for foreigners so that he can make more hard currency, and he can spend that hard currency partying, drinking, and having a good time in North Korea."

That party lifestyle that Rodman dignifies with his celebrity, is plain evil to Shin who grew up in the camps.

If he had the chance to sit in the centre-court box with Kim and Rodman as they sip their whiskies and vodkas while a basketball match is played before them, what would he say to them?

"I would ask them to go inside and try to live in there, at least for an hour," says Shin, as his finger hovers again over the place where he was tortured and starved. "I'm confident that they wouldn't want to be there - not for an hour, not even for a second."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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