WASHINGTON—Shin Dong-Hyuk spoke in a calm monotone as he recounted how North Korean prison guards dangled him over a fire. Because he thought the guards would reward him, 14-year-old Shin told them about his mother and older brother’s plans to flee the prison camp. But instead of granting Shin his freedom, the guards tortured him and made him watch his two family members’ public execution.
The only person born in a North Korean political prison who is known to have escaped, Shin still bears the scars of his experience.
“These messages of my suffering will never go away until the day I die,” he said through a translator.
Shin and three other experts on human rights violations in North Korea spoke Wednesday before part of the House Foreign Affairs committee.
While the House considers a bill calling for additional penalties against North Korea, Wednesday’s meeting provided a follow-up to a March UN report on human rights abuses in the communist country. A UN commission of inquiry recommended North Korean government crimes be sent to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation. The study recorded the systematic execution of Christians and mixed-race children. South Korean Human Rights Ambassador Lee Jong-hoon called the situation “genocide” and urged the representatives to hold North Korea responsible.
“Why can’t there be a red line for human rights as there is for weapons of mass destruction?” Lee asked at Wednesday's hearing.
According to a Heritage Foundation paper by Bruce Klingner, both Iran and Burma face tougher sanctions than North Korea, which has been perpetrating human rights violations for nearly 70 years.
While all the representatives at the hearing agreed the oppression in North Korea should be addressed, not all said UN involvement would provide the answers.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who headed the subcommittee hearing Wednesday, believes the ICC doesn’t have a great record in addressing crimes against humanity. China can protect its ally North Korea from international intervention, and it is difficult for outsiders to make an impact in the closed nation.
“The world has really failed to raise the issue in a complete way,” Smith told me. “It has to get to the highest levels.”
Smith recommended South Korea create a regional court to address North Korean crimes because it could easily gather information on the regime from North Korean refugees. But South Korea has never addressed North Korea’s human rights issues—the nation’s liberals believe such a move would compromise any negotiations with its neighbor to the north.
Andrew Natsios, co-chair for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and former vice president of World Vision, thinks it will be a long time before people in North Korea regain their rights. The best thing the world can do, he said, is to publicize the nation’s oppression: “I think we should simply be unrelenting.”
Shin continues his unrelenting work against North Korean oppression by speaking about his experiences through his bestselling book, Escape from Camp 14. While he initially fled the prison camp in hopes of eating the delicious meals he heard existed outside its walls, he has come to value his freedom.
“No one has the right to deny or take away freedom, which is the DNA of humanity,” he said.