Cover Story

Fleeing hell

"Fleeing hell" Continued...

Issue: "Inside the wire," March 22, 2014

Jo said the UN report won’t change things in North Korea, at least on the top level because “they’re like gangsters, mobsters,” but she believes a shift is happening within her people, especially through the underground churches. But it won’t be easy, she added, because the North Korean philosophy of Juche—an ideology that man has ultimate control over the world and his own destiny—leaves no room for God: “Kim Il Sung took the place of God, and Kim Jong Il took the seat of Jesus.”

Kang said the Kim regime fears Christianity because “in church, we talk about truth … but everything is a lie in North Korea.” Change is happening in North Korea on multiple levels, but he believes “50 percent of change will come from religion. You cannot dismiss the power of religion.”

Although Pyongyang now has four state-approved “Christian” churches, defectors call them “fake.” Out of sight, about 230 underground churches exist in North Korea, according to an estimate by Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Perhaps North Korea isn’t so dark after all.

Kang said he still thinks about the hyungs (older brothers) he met in China, who also voluntarily returned to North Korea to evangelize. He has not heard from them for a while, but he still has hope that their sacrifice will bear fruit: “I’m praying for those who are in North Korea spreading the words of gospel.”

Graphic drawings

Drawing submitted to Commission of Inquiry by former prisoner Kim Kwang-Il
 
Drawing submitted to Commission of Inquiry by former prisoner Kim Kwang-Il
Drawing submitted to Commission of Inquiry by former prisoner Kim Kwang-Il
 
Drawing submitted to Commission of Inquiry by former prisoner Kim Kwang-Il
Drawing submitted to Commission of Inquiry by former prisoner Kim Kwang-Il
 
Drawing submitted to Commission of Inquiry by former prisoner Kim Kwang-Il
Drawing submitted to Commission of Inquiry by former prisoner Kim Kwang-Il
 
Drawing submitted to Commission of Inquiry by former prisoner Kim Kwang-Il
Drawing submitted to Commission of Inquiry by former prisoner Kim Kwang-Il
 
Drawing submitted to Commission of Inquiry by former prisoner Kim Kwang-Il
Drawing submitted to Commission of Inquiry by former prisoner Kim Kwang-Il
 
Drawing submitted to Commission of Inquiry by former prisoner Kim Kwang-Il
Drawing submitted to Commission of Inquiry by former prisoner Kim Kwang-Il
 
Drawing submitted to Commission of Inquiry by former prisoner Kim Kwang-Il

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Weighed-down agenda

When UN-commissioned investigators present their report of North Korea’s crimes against humanity in Geneva this month, they’ll be competing for attention. After four days of dignitary speeches, experts will present over 100 reports during the month-long annual session of the UN Human Rights Council. Weighty subjects will come after lighter ones, such as the human rights of a “sustainable environment” and “adequate housing”—indicators of an ever-expanding definition of “rights” beyond life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Critics point out the summit’s hypocritical element: In addition to the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, the Human Rights Council’s 47 members include nations (like Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba, Russia, and Vietnam) that restrict religious liberties and free speech, control family size, or jail political dissidents. Says Ann Buwalda of the Jubilee Campaign, a group fighting religious oppression and trafficking, “The fox is in charge of the henhouse.” 

Human Rights Council highlights

March 2  Opening day

March 10  Human rights obligations for a “safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment”

March 11  Freedom of religion and “religious hatred”

March 12  Child trafficking, prostitution, and pornography

March 13  Challenges of abolishing the death penalty

March 14  The rights of ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities

March 17  Human rights abuses in North Korea

March 18  Human rights abuses during Syria’s civil war

March 24  Israeli settlements and human rights in the Palestinian territories

March 25  Sexual violence in Congo; racial discrimination and “xenophobia”

March 26  Human rights in Afghanistan

Child of the gulag

Shin Dong-hyuk
Denis Balibouse/Reuters/Landov
Shin Dong-hyuk

Sitting before United Nations officials, Shin Dong-hyuk holds up his right hand: His middle finger is missing above the first knuckle. A North Korean prison camp official cut it off with a knife as a punishment for dropping a sewing machine, he explains. Oddly, Shin remembers feeling gratitude. “I thought my wrist was going to be cut off, but it was just a finger.”

Shin’s finger and the burn scars on his back are evidence of two dozen years of cruelty in North Korea’s Camp 14. Shin, 31, is the only known escapee born inside a North Korean political prison camp. His testimony—including his 2012 book Escape from Camp 14, co-written with Blaine Harden—has enlightened the world to conditions inside North Korea’s gulags.

Born to two inmates, Shin grew up in the 31-mile-wide Camp 14 surrounded by electric fences and snowy mountains, stained with the political crimes of his relatives. He and other children were so hungry they caught mice and snakes and picked grains from the floor. They had to ask permission from a guard to eat them or risk a severe beating.

His father may still be alive in the camp. His mother was hanged and his brother shot after 13-year-old Shin tipped off a night guard to their escape plans. From childhood, he had been brainwashed to believe snitching on other prisoners was honorable, a path to food rewards.

Instead, the guard took credit for Shin’s tip and left the boy to be tortured by interrogators: “I was chained and hanged upside down. And they lit a little bit of fire from coal. … They burned my back with that … for two to three days.”

Shin only gained courage to escape when a new prisoner told him stories of the outside world—especially descriptions of grilled meat. In January 2005, the two prisoners made a break for a fence. The other inmate was electrocuted, but Shin wriggled through the wires, ran down a hill, and eventually found his way to China.

Wearing a crisp dark suit and cuff links when I met him last year, Shin has adjusted to physical comforts, but not psychological ones: Camp 14 returns in his dreams. He feels deep shame about his role in his mother’s and brother’s deaths. Growing up, he never learned the affection normally associated with family: Life was a survival competition.

Camp couldn’t snuff out everything, though: When I asked his biggest wish, Shin said, “To meet my father.” —D.J.D.

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