Shin Dong Hyuk (North Korea)

Note: Shin Dong Hyuk is affiliated with the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), which is a long-time NED grantee.

Prison camp escapee and human rights advocate

Shin Dong Hyuk

Shin Dong Hyuk, 30, was born in Kacheon, a North Korean “total-control zone” slave labor camp for political prisoners. Shin Dong Hyuk, who escaped from the prison eight years ago, is the only person born in a North Korean prison camp known to have ever escaped and lived to tell the story. While in prison, he witnessed numerous executions, including those of his own mother and brother, and was beaten, tortured, and routinely starved.

After befriending Park, a 40-year-old North Korean inmate from Pyongyang who was well-educated and knew of the outside world, Dong Hyuk and Park decided to escape. Dong Hyuk’s motivation to flee was not freedom; after all, he would later recount, he hardly had the capacity to understand that abstract concept.  Dong Hyuk was motivated by something much more banal – food.

During their escape, Park was killed when he touched a high-voltage electric fence that surrounded the camp. Dong Hyuk managed to crawl over the electric wire by using Park’s body as a shield and successfully escaped the camp. He eventually made his way across the North Korean border into China, where he was discovered and placed into protection by the South Korean embassy.

Shin Dong Hyuk

  • Age: 30
  • Title: Human rights defender
  • Organization: The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights
  • twitter

After South Korean officials confirmed that his story was true, he was flown into the country and given defector status. On his arrival, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), a NED grantee, housed him in its office, provided him with counseling and guidance as he tried to assimilate into life in South Korea, and helped him build a personal and professional network of support.

Escape from Camp 14 Book CoverFormer Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden later published a biography of Dong Hyuk entitled, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, which became a New York Times bestseller.  As a result of the book, Dong Hyuk is now one of the most high-profile North Korean human rights defenders in the world.

Dong Hyuk works in partnership with NKDB as well as many other NED-supported North Korean human rights organizations to raise awareness about North Korean political prisons. His powerful story and advocacy work played a key role in the decision of the UN Human Rights Commission to launch the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in North Korea in March 2013.

Although Dong Hyuk continues to face difficulties in trying to live a “normal” life, he remains committed and dedicated to raising awareness of the existence of North Korean political prison camps in the hope of securing freedom for the 200,000 political prisoners who remain in detention.

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