Interview: Shin Dong-hyuk, human rights advocate
Momentum is gathering in the international community to demand human rights in North Korea. Seven months after the United Nations established the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea, the most recent United Nations report by Marzuki Darusman calls for the referral of the DPRK to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. North Korea, in response, is launching a diplomatic offensive through PR campaigns and proposing that the U.N. investigator Darusman may visit North Korea if the attempts to refer North Korea to the ICC are stopped.
It is in this context that New Focus International presents an interview with one of the most prominent proponents of human rights in North Korea: Shin Dong-hyuk. He is the recipient of the U.N. Watch award for human rights in 2013, and more recently, the Human Rights Watch award in September 2014. Shin was born in 1982 in a political prison camp in Kaechon, South Pyongan Province, after his parents were granted an “Award Marriage” as a reward for obeying the rules of the camp. In 2005 he successfully escaped Camp 14 and escaped to South Korea; he gained international prominence as the main subject of Blaine Harden’s best-selling book Escape from Camp 14. Currently he is the founder and executive director of Inside NK, an organization for North Korean human rights based in Washington D.C.
The original New Focus interview, conducted and published in Korean, dates back to January 2014. Since then, the world has been seeing an unprecedented call to hold the North Korean regime accountable. The words Shin Dong-hyuk spoke nine months ago — of defiance against the regime and justice for those in dire need — are relevant, more than ever, to the current efforts for freedom and basic human dignity in North Korea.
Shin Dong-hyuk at the New Focus office in January 2014.
NF: How do you feel about receiving the Moral Courage Award from U.N. Watch [in June 2013]?
Shin: While I am grateful, I also feel uncomfortable because my father, relatives and friends are still suffering inside the camp. Also, there are countless North Korean defectors laboring for this cause in places that aren’t so visible — I am merely a representative of everyone else’s sweat and blood. Through this award, I hope to raise widespread awareness in the international community about the human rights problem in North Korea.
Please tell us about your book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West.
I worked together with Blaine Harden, the East Asia correspondent for the Washington Post. The book has been published in more than 20 languages.
What was the purpose of your escape from North Korea?
When I was living in the concentration camp, I never knew the emotions “good” and “bad.” Nor did I ever think to report on the atrocities of the camp after escaping. All I wanted was to live just one day where I could eat until feeling full like those living outside. That was my only reason for escape, and I miraculously succeeded. I was lucky; there are many escape attempts among prisoners, but not too many are successful.
What kind of work do you generally do?
I participate in seminars on North Korean human rights and testify to the cruelties happening in the political prison camps. I center my work on these testimonies, because I have personally experienced the abominable state of being denied the most basic human rights. Recently, I was invited to speak at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., the Czech Embassy in D.C., as well as several universities in the United States, including Princeton University. In October  I was also invited to speak with the former president George W. Bush.
What did you talk about with Mr. Bush?
He invited me to the newly opened George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas. Mr. Bush listened to my stories at Camp 14 and expressed concern that the cruelties against political criminals are still continuing today. He said he was personally interested in the human rights issue in North Korea and found my book very moving. He also emphasized that at this very moment, prisoners in North Korea are being subject to public executions, torture, abuse and hunger — the world should remember this, and continue to work on improving the current situation.
Please give us an introduction of Inside NK.
Inside NK is a non-profit that was launched in December 2012. Our headquarters in Washington D.C. was established in October 2013; we became legally registered and certified as a non-profit in November 2013. Through a variety of means including internet broadcasts and documentary productions, Inside NK plans to raise awareness about the severity of the human rights situation in North Korea throughout the United States and the rest of the world.
Any words of advice for the improvement of human rights in North Korea?
Recently, the former NBA star Dennis Rodman visited North Korea. Cultural interaction with outsiders is important; but what is more important is that Kim Jong-un listens to the cries of his people. I don’t want to interfere on the good times Kim had with Rodman. But this visit should not blur out the reality of how many people have starved, how many have lost their freedom, and how many are still suffering from the generational succession of power from Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, to Kim Jong-un. For real improvement of human rights in North Korea, it is much more effective to continue denouncing the regime, as opposed to supplying funds to the regime through ventures such as tourism.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I find it strange that Europe and North America are much more interested in the severity of the North Korean issue than South Korea is, which is supposed to be the land of our brothers. There is a problem with the particularly South Korean way of looking at “human rights” as a political issue, even though no political commentaries accompany the content. In South Korea, when I call myself a North Korean human rights advocate, many people label me as “a conservative” or “a reactionary idiot.” I say, pointing out human rights issues and fighting to improve them is not a “conservative” thing to do. It is not “conservative” to oppose the totalitarian regime and the imprisonment camps.
Recently, Shin wrote an opinion article for CNN, calling for continued international engagement and expressing his skepticism that six-party talks cannot fundamentally change the repressive regime. Despite the difficulties of fighting against a dictatorship that continues to haunt his present, Shin Dong-hyuk carries on his efforts. In the interview with New Focus, he said, “A lot of people know about the labor camps. But they don’t know precisely how the people are suffering inside. Sometimes I shudder at the thought that my testimonies can kill my father, relatives and friends still inside. But I can only be dignified in the face of their deaths if I continue the struggle and give everything I have.”
Reporting by Choi Dami.
Read in Korean.
Translated and edited by Haeryun Kang.
Featured image: U.S. Mission Geneva/ Eric Bridiers