Three days before my fourth birthday, the 9th April 1996, Shin Dong-hyuk had been thrown into the camp prison of Kaechon Political Prison Camp, or Camp 14. It is one of many slave labour/death/‘reeducation’ camps in North Korea – though their government fully denies their existence. Testimony, sparse video footage, and in recent years aerial surveillance from stealth planes have all given evidence to the contrary. Collectively, the camps today hold 200,000 people, for ‘crimes’ such as simple as failing to precede Kim Jong-il or Kim il-Sung’s name with ‘Comrade’ in conversation. Entire families are arrested, at midnight, for the misdemeanor of a single family member; separated; and kept ignorant of the very reason they were brought to the camp. According to former guards of such camps, interviewed by Weise, torture is “the norm…every time a subject is arrested.” The guards control life in its totality, arbitrarily killing, beating, detaining and, in the instance of Shin, marrying.
Now in his late twenties, Shin was born in the camp. His mother had been picked at random for marriage by a guard to reward a hardworking inmate. Age 6 onwards he mined coal, within an environment in which any transgression would result in instant execution. At the age of 24, Shin became the first known person ever to escape from Camp 14, horrifically burning his shins as he climbed over the back of his dead friend, whose body had weighed down the electrified barbed wiring that had killed him in his own attempt.
He recounted the stories to director Mark Weise just once, on camera, but the exhaustion of doing so took him two weeks. Weise attempted to ease Shin into the first interview by asking about his earliest memory. He thought momentarily, and said he had nothing of interest, but then responded with the story of witnessing his first public execution, compulsory for all prisoners. He was four years old, and this was a far cry from birthdays or spaghetti hoops. Outside of filming later on, Weise asked him if his mother comforted him. Shin asked why she would – they happened every week.
The story only turns darker. Having been indoctrinated since birth to think without concepts of freedom, and by extension, abuse, a 14-year-old Shin turned over his own mother and brother after eavesdropping on them discussing escape. Alongside his father, though he did not know, he was imprisoned in the prison camp on April 6th 1996, tortured by being hung from the ceiling and having a fire built under his back (another is to fully submerge the prisoner in water, controlled only by a pedal under the guard’s feet and whims) and released only 7 months later in order to witness their executions. At the time he felt only anger at her for causing his own suffering – he recounted how he had never learnt that he was supposed to cry when his mother is executed.
Chillingly, Shin wanted to go back. While his body was in S. Korea, Shin declared that his mind was still in the camp. Long, David Lean-esque shots of Shin looking through the no-man’s-land at his ‘home’ in North Korea dominate the film’s opening. I empathise – he had never heard of money before escaping, and had only ever “suspected that there would be a country of North Korea” beyond the camp. In his own words, his desire is unnervingly Lapsarian, in principle: “I miss my innocent heart…I don’t want to think about anything.” The prisoners are so conditioned by the guards’ decision-making, whom Weise calls an inmate’s “mother, father, God,” that they obey without question. When he escaped, Shin was not thinking about freedom, for he had no concept of it. Shin hungered for meat. Having heard stories of people eating chicken, he resolved not to die before tasting it.
Today he works internationally with LINK, portrayed in the film as an absurd, self-righteous American organisation, though Weise assures me that they do good work and he does not wish to criticise them – they have rescued 129 refugees to date. Despite the extensive psychological trauma he displays throughout, he has refused specialist psychological treatment, and maintains he will be the first across if the border opens up, and would, ideally, farm corn in subsistence in the camp. It reminded me of Voltaire’s ultimate solution for the avoidance of unhappiness, in Candide: “Let’s work without speculating, said Martin; it’s the only way of rendering life bearable.”
Around Shin’s personal story were cuts of Commander Kwon, a former guard at the camp and Oh Yang-nam, a former secret policeman, who describe the settings. Kwon also supplies the only known footage of Camp 14, a rare sight indeed. Ali Soozandeh was commissioned to illustrate the stories, which though evocative were at times distractingly simplistic. At times, the film verges on voyeuristic. We follow Shin around his home and the supermarket, watching him make difficult deliberations over such things as buying milk. He suffers palpably. That Weise so candidly has reminded Shin that after two years he would be “the told story” and need sustainable work reminds us that Shin has been on a platform that cannot last. It is a tragedy of the media that he will be forgotten, not least because he is one of 200,000, and part of a secret buried by the world.