ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14
By: Maan “Maggie” Villar, The World According to Maggie Villar
The reason I want to become an International Lawyer is profound, it needs a separate entry but people like Shin Dong-hyuk inspire me to do well and do good for this world – leave legacy, change lives, and be successful. I was reading about the dire conditions of North Korea a while ago as stories about this country interests me a lot, it mystifies me, there is an allure to their story that makes me want to see it for myself and in some way reach out, give them a hand after acquiring the power and right to do so.
It is his second life, Shin Dong-hyuk, he has suffered many “mini-deaths” and bigger blows in his life back in his old country. There is a very slim chance that anyone can escape the dreaded labor camps but Shin Dong-hyuk was not only able to escape the dreaded labor camp, he escaped the most brutal labor camp, Camp 14 which is reserved for threats to the communist regime, “the most serious political criminals”. Shin, being a North Korean is affected by the “Three Generations of Punishment” policy meaning that if your grandfather commited a crime, you are to receive the same degree of punishment usually leading to entire lives spent in prison camps. Shin was born in the camp to an arranged marriage of two prisoners who were allowed to spend a couple of nights together as a result of good work the reason being his uncle commited the grave offense of deserting the army and defecting to South Korea, aside from that his brother and mother attempted to escape the prison camp when he was still a child. These offenses are considered the worst and warrants an execution or an extended sentence in the prison camp. It is said that in Camp 14, the Kaechon intermittent camp, prisoners barely make it to 45 years of age but Shin escaped and lived to tell the tale. It would be a dream come true if I be an audience to one of his talks.
Survival was the top priority in the camp, there is no room for human affection or emotions that Shin felt that his mother and brothers were competitors for food rations. As a means of survival, he even reported his mother and brother for attempting an escape to get a reward. To curb his grumbling stomach he ate rats, insects, frogs and reported other inmates for more rewards. In his eyes, even as a child, he saw many executions, violence and abuse. Prisoners die of stavation, illness, torture and work accidents. For breaking a sewing machine, a part of his right middle finger was cut off by his supervisor and here we are complaining of the “harsh” conditions we have at our ergonomically designed seats and desks at work. Shin was also tortured when he reported his mother and brother, for four days he was tied to a hook (the scars on his back are still visible up to present) and a charcoal fire was lit on his back for the guards to solicit more information from him. He and his father was kept in a small concrete prison cell after that and when they were taken out, they witnessed the public executions of his mother and brother which at the time did not matter to him but would be a haunting memory he would have later.
“I still think of freedom as a roast chicken”, this was coming from a man who all his life ate a soupy gruel of cabbage, corn and salt with the occasional rats and insects. He learned of the outside world and the other types of food that he can eat outside from a 40-year old political prisoner named Park he met while working in a textile factory. The idea of eating as much food as he fancied, from Park’s accounts drove Shin to want to escape. The attempt to escape was creative, Shin would provide the inside information about the camp while Park would be responsible in using his knowledge of what lies outside the camp to escape the country.
The night of January 2, 2005, Park and Shin were assigned to work near the camp’s electric fence to collect firewood. The two waited for the guards to be out of sight and made their attempt to escape. Park went first but was electrocuted by the high voltage fence, Shin then used Park’s body as a shield to ground the current to pass over the wire. He escaped the camp and broke into a farmer’s barn where he found a military uniform which he used to guise himself as a military man. It was a story of survival and how he learned to live in more “liveable” conditions until he was discovered by a journalist in a restaurant in Shanghai when he was working as a laborer.
August 2013, Shin gave an interview gave a testimony to the United Nations first commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea, he is still an active and strong voice in campaigning for human rights abuses in the country and assisting refugees. What struck me most in Shin’s story was a statement he made for an interview for the Financial Times where he said: “I don’t really know anything about music. I can’t sing and I don’t feel any emotion from it. But I do watch lots of films and the one that moves me most is Schindler’s List.” How can one live and not have music in his life? It is unimaginable. It is now my life plan to provide music in the lives of others, whatever way I can and with Shin’s story I only want to become a more thankful person than complain all the time. If given those conditions, would we have survived? Would we still know music?