Shin Dong-hyuk looks as though having lunch with me is about the last thing in the world he would like to be doing. He’s jittery and fiddles constantly with his Samsung smartphone. He avoids eye contact and shifts awkwardly in his seat. The only sign he is actually prepared to spend some time with me is that he has removed the stiff blue jacket of his suit and, after some persuasion, ordered some food.
On the way to the café, near Seoul’s Yonsei University, he tried to extricate himself from our appointment, one I’d been pursuing for months. Shin had accepted the invitation to lunch a few weeks previously via a Christian organisation that had been helping me arrange the encounter. He now spends much of his time bearing witness to the life he once led in the North Korean internment camp where he was born. Meeting me would be part of his mission to draw attention to the atrocities that occur daily inside North Korea.
On the day we met, however, Shin, 30, was tired after giving several hours of testimony to the United Nations’ first commission of inquiry into his country’s human rights catastrophe. He was pressed for time, he said. He wasn’t hungry. He liked to eat at regular mealtimes and, because his testimony had gone on longer than expected, it was now past 3pm.
I’d flown all the way from Hong Kong, I protested of my four-hour flight to Seoul. “Hong Kong’s not far,” he shot back. It was quite a statement, marvellous in its way, for a young man whose entire universe, until he escaped eight years ago, was circumscribed by the perimeter fence of a North Korean gulag.
The only sentence at Camp 14, a prison labour camp about 40 miles from Pyongyang, is life. Shin is the sole person born inside such a camp known to have escaped. His remarkable, terrifying – and frankly horrible – story is recounted in Escape from Camp 14 (2012), an account of his life as related to American journalist Blaine Harden. Earlier in the day, a member of the UN commission described Shin as the world’s “single strongest voice” on the atrocities inside North Korean camps, where some 200,000 people are imprisoned. When Shin was called to the stand to testify, he was referred to simply as “witness number one”.
I have coaxed him into the Casa della Luce, the first café we come across outside the gates of the university where the UN inquiry took place. Maybe we can get a Pepsi, I say, after hearing that he loves that particular drink. “You know it’s a matter of great controversy whether Pepsi or Coke is better,” I volunteer lamely, unsure whether the concept of the “Pepsi Challenge” has crossed his radar during eight years of freedom. Word would certainly not have reached Camp 14, a place so isolated that, growing up, Shin had never even heard of Pyongyang or Kim Jong Il, the country’s then leader. “Is it really better than Coke?” I persist. “Yeah, I think Pepsi’s better,” he replies, blinking through his thick-rimmed glasses.
Inside the café, which is decorated in bright colours and furnished with faux rustic tables, we sit before an array of dishes. Shin has ordered waffles, drizzled in maple syrup and served with a scoop of ice cream and berries. The restaurant, it turns out, has only Coke. Shin goes without.
His friend, a young Christian woman named Shine, has also ordered waffles, plus an Americano. I’ve gone for persimmon juice and something Korean-sounding: bulgogi quiche. Bulgogi is a marinated meat dish that, in a good restaurant, can be delicious. We’ve stumbled into a pretty average eatery and my bulgogi tastes like shoe leather boiled until just soft enough to eat.
Complaining about the food in a restaurant, though, would be insanely insensitive to my guest. For the first 22 years of his life, Shin was constantly hungry. So small were his rations, he used to lick cabbage soup off the floor. As a teenager, he came across a new inmate, a high official who had fallen out of favour. The man, named Park, told him of the mouth-watering food to be had outside the camp and Shin began to dream of the roasted meat he might taste if he escaped. Park also informed him that the world was round and told him about an invention called television. He said there was a nearby country called China where everyone was getting rich. These stories, impossibly distant, were of less interest to Shin than tales of culinary adventures. “I still think of freedom as roasted chicken,” he says.
At the UN hearing, Shin had said, “I thought about food all the time. An hour after each meal, I was hungry again. There were lots of mice in the camp. We would ask the guard if we could catch them and, if he was in a good mood, he would say, ‘OK’. Then the guard would watch us eat the mouse alive.” “Did you do that?” the chairman of the inquiry had asked, trying to hide his repulsion. “Yes, of course. Many, many times,” Shin replied.
I ask Shin about the cornucopia that now daily confronts him. “I know everything is delicious. I look at the colours and the way the food is presented on the plate but it’s very difficult to choose. When I first came to South Korea, I was so greedy that I used to order too much food. Nowadays I try to order only as much as I can handle.” As if the conversation has reminded him to eat, he scoops up a piece of waffle and ice cream with his fork. I notice the tip of one finger is missing and remember it was cut off in the camp as a punishment. (He had dropped a sewing machine.)
By order of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder, crimes extend to family members across three generations. Shin’s “original sin” was to have been born the nephew of two men who tried to flee to South Korea after the war of 1950-53. His first memory is of an execution. “My mum and I were at this place. There were many people at that place and the military brought a person to a wooden column. Then there were gunshots and I remember being very scared.”
When he was 14, he was dragged to the front of a crowd to watch a very particular execution: that of his mother and elder brother, for trying to escape. Both were tied to a post. His mother was hanged and his brother shot. Shin says he had never bonded with his family in a normal way. He regarded his mother as competition for food and his principal emotion on seeing her dangling from a rope was to be grateful that it was not him.
The most remarkable part of Escape from Camp 14 is when Shin confesses that it was he who snitched on his mother and brother about their escape plan. It was a secret he had kept locked away for many years, even after his own escape, as he adjusted to the moral codes of the outside world. The first of 10 commandments at Camp 14 was that escapees would be shot and that any attempt at escape must be reported. Shin, brainwashed since birth, had dutifully informed the guards. He had hoped for a reward of extra food. Instead, he was taken to a dungeon – a prison within the camp, inside the prison that is North Korea – and tortured. Once, he was hung from the ceiling and lowered over a fire until he could smell his own burning flesh. His body is still covered with burn scars and pierced with a hole made by one of his tormentors with a hook. These and other injuries, plus satellite pictures that confirm the existence of Camp 14, are the only means he has of corroborating his story.
Shin escaped on January 2 2005. Together with Park, he crawled under the electric fence but Park got ensnared and was electrocuted. Shin survived only because he crawled over his companion’s body. Outside the fence, Shin drifted north, stealing food and clothes along the way. At the border town of Musan, he bribed guards with cigarettes and biscuits before crossing the frozen Tumen river into China. After a couple of years there, working for pitiful wages, he made it to a South Korean consulate and from there to Seoul.
Freedom is not easy. Still plagued by nightmares, he is wracked by guilt over the fate of his mother, his father – left behind in the camp – and Park. “I did not have feelings for my parents. I try even now but I have a hard time doing that.” The world outside the perimeter fence has been difficult to process. His first impression of North Korea was how free it was. People were walking around and there were no guards barking orders at them. In China, he was amazed to see a pack of dogs. Why, he wondered, had no one caught them and barbecued them?
I ask whether Shin, who has since lived in the US and visited other countries, including the UK, has a sense that there are different gradations of freedom. “When I compare the freedom of China or the US or South Korea, their levels of freedom are all pretty much the same,” he says. “For me, freedom is when people are free to walk in the street, to say what they want, and to eat what they want.”
Shin is vaguely warming up but our conversation remains stilted. I’ve finished my quiche and am listening to his story, dipping the occasional French fry into a tiny bowl of tomato ketchup. When the interpreter is translating, he looks at his phone messages. Seeking to draw him out more, I ask what music or literature has most affected him. “I don’t really know anything about music. I can’t sing and I don’t feel any emotion from it. But I do watch lots of films and the one that moves me the most is Schindler’s List,” he says, referring to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film about the Holocaust.
Like many North Korean exiles, Shin has fallen in with the Christian community that sometimes, though not in his case, helps escapees to China to find their way to South Korea. I can appreciate the comfort of organised religion but I’m interested in whether he is bothered by Christianity’s concept of original sin. That, after all, was a constant theme of life in the camp, where he was considered corrupted by the crime of his uncles. “It is similar in a way. In the prison camp, every day I repented and confessed the bad things I’d done to the prison guards,” he says of the daily struggle sessions. “And in church, too, I repent the things I have done wrong. The formula is the same but the difference is that in the prison camp I was forced to do this. In church I confess of my own volition.”
These days he spends much of his time raising awareness about North Korea in lectures to churches, university students and rights groups. More than once he says that all he wants to do is to erase the memories of his horrible experience. “I don’t want to think about the past any more,” he says. So much worse the irony, I think, that he has condemned himself to relive the worst moments of his life again and again as part of his mission to put the spotlight on human rights abuses inside North Korea.
I wonder how he thinks the west should approach relations with Pyongyang. I had read that on an emotional level he hoped for an invasion to liberate his countrymen. “I have no idea what can be done,” he says today. “All I ask is that it should not harm the people of North Korea.”
After each question Shin makes a face, as though he has to leave. Each time, I ask another question. He has found it hard to keep close relationships and, in his own words, is still “evolving from being an animal”. Can he ever be happy? “I don’t know. My mind doesn’t have too much room for those things right now,” he says. “I still suffer psychologically. I’d like to take things slowly, day by day. For now I can’t think about the future.”
An American couple in Ohio has informally adopted him. Once they took him to the state fair, where he watched well-fed pigs race around a track. “I have a good relationship with my US foster parents,” he says. “I contact them often. Whenever I have a holiday, I visit them. I think of them as good parents and I try to be a good son.”
What about a girlfriend, I ask? “I have never had a chance to meet a girl,” he replies, looking down at the table. But the book, I say, describes his relationship with a young woman he met through a Christian organisation in California. A shadow crosses his face. “No, I think there was a misunderstanding. The way it was described in the book …” His voice trails off and suddenly he is standing. “I’m sorry, I’m leaving now,” he says. Then he apologises again for the abruptness of his departure. “I’m sorry. Maybe I can see you next time you’re in Seoul.”
He shakes my hand. Then he bolts. I’m left wondering if there’s anything I could have done to put him more at ease. I look at the half-finished waffle with its half-finished scoop of ice cream and think it’s a bit of a waste. Then again, it occurs to me, perhaps a half-eaten waffle is one definition of freedom.
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor
Casa della Luce
50-1 Daeshin-dong, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul
Bulgogi quiche with French fries Won6,500
Waffles with ice cream x2 Won10,000
Persimmon juice Won6,000
Total (inc service) Won31,000 (£17.75)
Get alerts on California when a new story is published