He existed within the camp’s concrete walls, which had no running water or furniture, until aged 23, he escaped. He spent one month on the run before sneaking over the border into China, and eventually reaching the safety of the South Korean embassy.
Last month, a book about his life — Escape from Camp 14 — was published, taking its place at the top of the bestseller lists. I met him in London as he prepared to speak at a House of Commons meeting to raise awareness about North Korean prisoners.
Six years on from his escape, Shin — now based in Seoul — can’t describe the worst thing about life in the camps. “Every single day was the worst possible. You live every moment under the intense fear of being beaten and the guards fault every single movement,” he recalls.
Often, the key to survival was looking after number one. Blaine Harden, the author who transcribed Shin’s story, knew his mother and brother had been executed but wasn’t sure why. During conversations, Shin referred to himself as a worthless individual and a snitch. Eventually, Shin revealed the terrible truth: he was responsible.
Aged 14, Shin overheard them discussing plans to escape. Institutionalised from birth and in exchange for food and fewer beatings, he told a school teacher. He describes feeling no emotion as he watched his mother being hanged and his brother shot — he’d been brought up to believe rules must be obeyed.
Prisoners go to desperate lengths for food: eating rats or eating their own vomit to alleviate hunger. “Everything we ate was horrendous,” says Shin. “But the worst thing was corn kernels picked out of cow dung.”
His father, whose fate is unknown, became a prisoner for being the brother of two young men who fled south during the Korean war. What is known is that Kim Il Sung had his own interpretation of the power of three, stating that “enemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations”. His mother’s name was Jang Hye Gyung. She never told her son why she was imprisoned.
Shin’s conception had been arranged by the guards. They chose his mother and father, Shin Gyung Sub, as prizes for each other in a “reward” marriage. The couple were allowed to sleep together for five nights and then Shin’s father was allowed to visit his family only a few times a year. Their eldest son, Shin He Geun, was born in 1974, Shin arrived eight years later.
Park Yong Chul was a well-travelled North Korean who’d enjoyed a life of relative luxury before arriving at Camp 14 in 2004. Shin was instructed to befriend Park — and extract a confession. Through him, Shin learned about the existence of other countries, televisions, computers but mostly, he learned about food. Park described chicken, pork and beef, leading Shin to make his first free decision: he chose not to snitch on Park, instead hatching a plan for them to escape together. “Hearing about the food he’d eaten in the outside world was the main trigger,” recalls Shin. “I wanted to eat that kind of food — things unimaginable within the camp.”
Read the rest via The London Evening Standard