Publication: NBC News, North Korea Escapees Break Silence

 

NBC News published my portraits and in-depth interviews of four individuals who have escaped from North Korea. Excerpts of the full article are below.

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Shin Dong-hyuk is the only known North Korean escapee who was born inside an internment camp and lived to tell about it. Camp staff managed to brainwash Shin and turn him against his own family. He denounced his own mother for plotting to escape, and she was subsequently executed in public as Shin watched. He was subjected to brutal torture in the camp, but it was eventually hunger which drove him to escape the camp and North Korea. Today he lives in South Korea and in 2012 he released a book written with former Washington Post correspondent Blaine Harden titled "Escape from Camp 14." (Tomas van Houtryve/VII) Shin Dong-hyuk’s story is unique. He is the only North Korean known to have escaped alive after being born and brought up inside an internment camp.

Shin doesn’t know why his parents were imprisoned in the notorious Camp 14. He says they didn’t know each other until they were introduced as part of a camp system called “awarding marriage.”

“Guards pick one female and one male who are good workers and those two are made to be a pair,” he explains. After Shin was born, he was separated from his parents, who were only permitted occasional visits with each other as a reward for hard work.

There was no concept of family time, he says, which perhaps helps to explain how camp guards managed to brainwash Shin and turn him against his parents. He denounced his mother for plotting to escape, and she was subsequently executed in front of a crowd that included Shin.

Shin was subjected to brutal physical torture in the camp, but it was eventually hunger that drove him to escape. Spurred on by the stories of those who, unlike him, had experienced life outside the camp, he began to fantasize about the other side of the barbed-wire fence.

“I wanted to taste the food that I’d never had in my life,” he recalls. “I decided to escape because the desire to eat was stronger than the fear of being caught and killed.”

“I thought camp life and the things I saw and experienced were the truth,” he adds. “The things I believed turned out to be a fake. They are all made out of lies.”

Shin was 23 years old when he escaped the camp in 2005. He now lives in South Korea’s liberal, democratic society, but says it makes him equally distrustful. “Everyone is fooling others and is being fooled by them all the time.”

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Park Sang-hak is seen in Seoul, South Korea. Park was the son of a high-level North Korean spy. Eventually his father became disillusioned with the regime and had is family flee abroad. Park was the target of an assassination attempt in 2011 when a North Korean agent plotted to kill him with a poison-tipped pen. He regularly organizes high-profile activities to protests against the North Korean government. (Tomas van Houtryve/VII)

Park Sang Hak grew up in North Korea’s privileged inner circle as the son of a senior spy. He seemed destined for the higher echelons of the party himself, until he received a letter that would change his life.

Park’s father had become disillusioned with the regime, and in the letter he told his family to join him in China. “I was shocked,” Park says. “I always thought he was very loyal to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I spent a month agonizing over whether to go or not. At first I thought it was a trap.”

Park’s father wrote again, imploring his son to leave. There was no future in North Korea, he said, and the whole family was at risk of arrest if they did not flee. Today Park lives in South Korea, where he organizes regular protests against the North Korean government. In 2011, he was the target of an assassination attempt when a North Korean agent posing as a fellow dissident plotted to kill him with a poison-tipped pen.

Park later visited his would-be assassin in a South Korean prison. “He apologized to me,” Park says. “He said that he had no choice but to follow Kim Jong Il’s order because he had family left in the North. I knew the system, I knew that he didn’t have any options. I knew it was not personal.”

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View a Gallery of North Korea Escapee portraits or visit the full article on NBC News