At a hearing which I recently chaired in the Moses Room of the House of Lords, we took evidence from two north Korean dissidents who escaped from the country’s gulags – where 200,000 people are incarcerated. These were some of the most moving first-hand accounts I have ever heard.
Shin Dong-Hyok, who is 25, spent the first 23 years of his life in North Korea’s Political prison Camp 14, where he was born. As a child he described how he witnessed fellow child prisoners being killed through accidents and beatings. He told me that children and parents were required to watch and report on one another. He was forced to work from the age of 10 or 11.
His parents were sent to the camp in 1965 as political prisoners . Thirty years later, after family members tried to escape from the camp, Shin was interrogated in an underground torture chamber.
Following this failed escape attempt, he was forced , on April 6th 1996, to watch as his mother and brother were publicly executed.
Guards bound the hands and feet of the 13-year-old boy and roasted him over a fire. The burns still scar Shin’s back , the memories have indelibly scarred his mind .
“Afterwards, me and my father could not mingle with other prisoners and we had to work even harder than the rest,” he said.
It was then that Shin encountered an inmate who had not spent his entire life inside Camp 14. He had lived for a time in China, and must have been a highly placed official who had fallen foul of the regime. “During the time I spent with him, I learned so much about the outside world. I realised that this life in the camp was not the ordinary life,” he said.
In 2005, having been tortured, mistreated and discriminated against as the son and brother of a declared traitor – and suffering from constant hunger – Shin and his newly acquired friend and mentor tried to escape. His compatriot died on the barbed wire – not realising that it carried a high electric current – but, although he was badly burnt, Shin managed to evade the hunt and eventually made it to China. He literally climbed over the dead friend who had made his escape possible. For 25 days he then secretly travelled towards the Yalu River and over the border into China.
In Shanghai he found a way over the wall of the South Korean Consulate and, after 6 months there, he was allowed to travel to Seoul. Physically and emotionally Shin was deeply scarred by this shocking experience.
No-one who was born within a camp in what the regime call “the absolute control zone” has escaped to give testimony previously.
He was joined in the Moses Room by Ahn Myeong-Cheol, aged 37, who worked as a prison guard at four political prison camps – also within the “absolute control zone” between 1987 and 1994.
He movingly described how his father killed himself when he realised that he had been heard criticising the regime; his mother and brothers were sent to prison camps; Ahn was re-educated and became a prison guard in the “absolute control zones.”
He vividly and harrowingly described how he witness guard dogs imported from Russia tear three children to pieces and how the camp warden congratulated the guard who had trained the dogs; he said that even when prisoners died they are punished- their corpses and remains simply left to disintegrate and rot away on the open ground.
After he escaped in 1994 he published “The Are crying for Help” and in the Moses Room – where we sat under the great paintings of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and a painting of the Judgement of Daniel – he repeated his plea to the international community not to look away from the human rights violations and crimes against humanity experienced by the North Korean people.
Those who have inflicted this suffering will also one day face a judgement and those of us who fail to respond to these cries for help will face a judgement of a different kind.
It is often said that the North Korean regime has managed to exist behind a wall of secrecy ; that it treats the international community with contempt by refusing to allow outside observers into the country
But first hand witness accounts like those of Shin and Ahn are a clue to the mass of evidence pointing to serial crimes against humanity. In the end the truth will out. Just as the Soviet Union, under Mikhail Gorbachev (the grandson of a gulag survivor) ultimately consigned the gulags to history, one day they will be consigned to history in North Korea too.