UK parliamentary debate on North Korea human rights

Members of the British Parliament held a debate on January 11, 2012, regarding North Korea’s human rights and humanitarian crisis. The 90-minute debate, held in Westminster Hall in the House of Commons, was introduced by Fiona Bruce (Congleton, Conservative) who presented a detailed description of the dire conditions in North Korea based on firsthand accounts of defectors and international experts. She highlighted the story of a young man named Shin Dong-hyuk, describing him as”the only person ever to have escaped from a North Korean prison camp.”

It was in meetings with the Conservative party human rights commission, and at an event that I chaired on behalf of the Henry Jackson Society, that Shin Dong-hyuk told his life story. It is the personal testimony of someone who was born into a North Korean prison camp, lived there for 23 years and then escaped. As my hon. Friend says, his story was authoritative, valuable and deeply moving.

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in camp 14 in 1982. Shin described the conditions he endured for the first 23 years of his life. When he was 14 years old, his mother and brother were executed in front of him because they tried to escape. He was held for seven months in solitary confinement. The torture he faced was unimaginably inhumane. With extraordinary dignity and lack of bitterness, he described to us how he was hung upside down by his legs and hands from the ceiling, and on one occasion his body was burned over a fire. His torturers pierced his groin with a steel hook; he lost consciousness.

On another occasion, Shin was assigned to work in a garment factory. Severe hard labour is a common feature of North Korea’s prison camps. He accidentally dropped a sewing machine, and as a punishment the prison guards chopped off his middle finger. According to Shin, couples perceived by the authorities to be good workers are arbitrarily selected by prison guards and permitted, even forced, to get married, with a view to producing children who could, in turn, become model workers. Children born in the prison camp are, like Shin, treated as prisoners from birth. As a child in the prison school, Shin recalled the teacher, who was also a prison guard, telling the children that they were animals whose parents should have been killed. He told them that, by contrast, he, the teacher, was a human, and that they should be grateful to be alive.

Shin also recalled seeing, while at school, a seven-year-old girl in his class being severely beaten because she was discovered to have picked up a few grains of wheat on the way to school. The beating continued for two hours, and her classmates had to carry her home. She died the next day.

In 2004, at the age of 22, Shin met a fellow prisoner who had seen life outside the camp. This prisoner described the wider world to Shin. Initially, Shin did not believe him. His entire life until then had been spent behind the barbed wire of the prison camp, and he thought that this was the extent of life. Eventually, the other prisoner convinced him, and Shin’s curiosity developed. Together, they decided to try to escape, and in 2005 they put their plan into action. What then followed is a story of agony and ecstasy. In a written testimony available on the internet, Shin recalls:

“I had no fear of being shot at or electrified; I knew I had to get out and nothing else mattered at that moment. I ran to the barbed wire. Suddenly, I felt a great pain as though someone was stabbing the sole of my foot when I passed through the wire. I almost fainted but, by instinct, I pushed myself forward through the fence. I looked around to find the barbed wire behind me but Park”—his friend—“was motionless hanging over the wire fence! At that desperate moment I could afford little thought of my poor friend and I was just overwhelmed by joy. The feeling of ecstasy to be out of the camp was beyond description. I ran down the mountain quite a way when I felt something wet on my legs. I was in fact bleeding from the wound inflicted by the barbed wire. I had no time to stop but sometime later found a locked house in the mountain. I broke into the house and found some food that I ate, then I left with a small supply of rice I found in the house. I sold the rice at the first mining village I found and bribed the border guards to let me through the North Korean border with China with the money from that rice.”

Shin described to us first seeing the country of North Korea outside the prison camps, and said that, to him, it looked like paradise.

Shin’s story will be published in March this year, in a book called “Escape from Camp 14”.

You can read the entire transcript of the debate online.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide immediately issued a press release in which CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said:

“I would like to thank Fiona Bruce MP for tabling this debate and speaking with such compassion and conviction. This debate was a rare and very important way of putting the spotlight on the human rights and humanitarian crisis in North Korea, the world’s most closed nation ruled by one of the most oppressive regimes today.. We fully support the range of tools proposed during the debate, including a policy of critical, constructive engagement which opens up opportunities to raise these issues directly with the North Korean authorities, combined with increasing international attention and pressure on the regime to change. We are delighted that the debate covered the appalling situation in North Korea in some detail, including the severe violations of religious freedom. We hope, in particular, that the UK Government will have noted calls for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity in North Korea, and that Britain will take a lead in pursuing this idea internationally. We welcome the Minister’s recognition of the gravity of the situation in North Korea, and hope that this debate will have contributed to raising the dire human rights situation further up the agenda of policy-makers, Parliamentarians, the media and the public.”