August 03, 2014

Why I Salute Shin Dong-hyuk’s Frustration

Greg Scarlatoiu

Executive Director
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)

On July 30, the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies International Summer School (HUFS ISS) and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) co-hosted a conference entitled “The North Korean Human Rights Conundrum: Is There a Way Forward?” The conference panelists included: ROK Human Rights Ambassador Lee Jung-hoon; choreographer and human rights activist Kim Young-soon; “Escape from Camp 14” hero Shin Dong-hyuk; senior analyst and North Korean escapee Kim Kwang-jin; and Tim Peters, activist, humanitarian, and “guardian angel” of North Korean refugees.

Media in attendance accurately reported that Shin Dong-hyuk, symbol of the campaign to dismantle North Korea’s political prison camps, appeared disappointed and frustrated, even going as far as calling seminars on North Korean human rights “a waste of time.” However, while Shin’s anger doesn’t make the organizers’ life any easier, it is an encouraging sign. Demetra Choi, former managing director of HUFS ISS, noted: “When Shin spoke a year ago, he somberly told us he had no feelings. One year later, he appears angry and frustrated. A much needed healing process is under way…” As others observed, Shin’s emotions seem to mirror the pattern experienced by Holocaust survivors. For more than two years, as he spoke at events around the world, he’s had to relive the 23 years he spent at Camp 14. Always expected to revisit excruciating memories day in and day out, to speak of induced starvation, slave labor, torture, of having witnessed the killing of close relatives and children, he has never truly “escaped” from Camp 14… I salute his frustration. It is part of the process of moving beyond being just a symbol, and becoming a leader of the movement that will one day dismantle North Korea’s vast system of unlawful imprisonment.

Through the enthusiastic work of HUFS management, staff, and interns, the conference on North Korean human rights has become an annual fixture. Initially designed to be just a lecture given to foreign and Korean students participating in the university’s International Summer Program, the event is now attended by foreign diplomats, human rights activists, and NGO workers, and gets extensive press coverage. The number of participants increased from 200 in 2013 to about 250 in 2014. The inspiring 2014 keynote address by ROK Human Rights Ambassador Lee Jung-hoon added further depth and legitimacy to this initiative. Students unfamiliar with “Escape from Camp 14” burned the midnight oil to read it, in anticipation of meeting Shin. Nobody was offended, but all were inspired by his visible frustration. Students from all continents thought that having their photo taken with Shin was the highlight of their summer program. Some of them have decided to set up student organizations addressing North Korean human rights. Some of them have asked for advice on becoming human rights activists or humanitarian workers involved in North Korea.

Perhaps Ms. Kim Young-soon’s remarks resonated deepest with the audience. A former choreographer and close friend of North Korea’s elites, she was imprisoned for nine years at Yoduk political prison camp. Her “crime?” Knowing too much about Kim Jong-il’s personal life. At Yoduk, she lost three sons, a daughter, and both parents. She rolled up their bodies in straw mats, and buried them with her own hands. In her mid-70s now, she told the audience: “The people of the world can live long and happy lives, go to sleep every night and wake up every morning without even once thinking of North Korea. It is this type of event that reminds the world of the atrocities happening in that country. Thank you for being here to listen to us tonight.”

Ms. Kim said: “No dictatorship lasts forever, and neither will this one. I may not be getting any younger, but I promise you, for as long as I can continue, I will never give up the fight for North Korean human rights… ” Thank you, Ms. Kim Young-soon. Neither will I, or any of my colleagues. If Kim Jong-un is not yet sharing a cell with Ratko Mladic just six months after the release of the UN COI report, it doesn’t mean that all is lost. The higher ground is ours to keep. Shin Dong-hyuk has been a symbol. He will soon be ready to be a leader.