Born in the Gulag: Why a North Korean Boy Sent His Own Mother to Her Death

"Do you know why you are here?"

Shin knew what he had done; he had followed camp rules and stopped an escape.

But the officer did not know -- or did not care -- that Shin had been a dutiful informer.

"At dawn today, your mother and your brother were caught trying to escape. That's why you're here. Understand? Were you aware of this fact or not? How is it possible for you not to know that your mother and brother tried to run away? If you want to live, you should spit out the truth."

Confused and increasingly frightened, Shin found it difficult to speak. He would eventually figure out that the night guard at the school had claimed all the credit for discovering the escape plan. In reporting to his superiors, he had not mentioned Shin's role.

But on that morning in the underground prison, Shin understood nothing. He was a bewildered 13-year-old. The officer with four stars kept asking him about the whys, whens, and hows of his family's escape plan. Shin was unable to say anything coherent.

Interrogators tortured Shin for several days, grilling him about the attempted escape. What grudges did his mother harbor? What did he discuss with her? What were his brother's intentions? They stripped Shin, tied ropes to his ankles and wrists, and suspended him from a hook in the ceiling. They lowered him over a fire. The sessions ended when Hong, Shin's friend who had helped him inform, confirmed what had happened. The guards carried Shin, too weak to walk, to a cramped cell, his new home.

After several months, the guards took Shin to the same room where, in early April, he had first been interrogated. Now, it was late November. Shin had just turned 14. He had not seen the sun for more than half a year.

What he saw in the room startled him: his father knelt in front of two interrogators who sat at their desks. He seemed much older and more careworn than before. He had been brought into the underground prison at about the same time as Shin.

His father's right leg canted outward unnaturally. He had also been tortured. Below his knee, his leg bones had been broken, and they had knitted back together at an odd angle. The injury would end his relatively comfortable job as a camp mechanic and lathe operator. He would now have to hobble around as an unskilled laborer on a construction crew.

They were handcuffed, blindfolded, and led outside to the elevator. Above ground, they were guided into the backseat of a small car and driven away. When the car stopped after about 30 minutes and his blindfold was removed, he panicked.

A crowd had gathered at the empty wheat field near his mother's house. This was the place where Shin had witnessed two or three executions a year since he was a toddler. A makeshift gallows had been constructed and a wooden pole had been driven into the ground.

Shin was now certain that he and his father were to be executed. He became acutely aware of the air passing into and out of his lungs. He told himself these were the last breaths of his life.

His panic subsided when a guard barked out his father's name.

"Hey, Gyung Sub. Go sit at the very front."

Shin was told to go with his father. A guard removed their handcuffs. They sat down. The officer overseeing the execution began to speak. Shin's mother and brother were dragged out.

Shin had not seen them or heard anything about their fate since he walked out of his mother's house on the night he betrayed them.

"Execute Jang Hye Gyung and Shin He Geun, traitors of the people," the senior officer said.

Shin looked at his father. He was weeping silently.

The shame Shin feels about the executions has been compounded over the years by the lies he began telling in South Korea. For years after his escape from the camp, he said that he learned of the escape attempt only when the guards told him, that he had not informed. He feared how people would treat him if they learned that he had been responsible for their deaths.

"There is nothing in my life to compare with this burden," Shin told me on the day in California when he first explained how and why he had misrepresented his past.

But he was not ashamed on the day of the executions. He was angry. He hated his mother and brother with the savage clarity of a wronged and wounded adolescent.

ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14.jpg As he saw it, he had been tortured and nearly died, and his father had been crippled, because of their foolish, self-centered scheming.

And only minutes before he saw them on the execution grounds, Shin had believed he would be shot because of their recklessness.

When guards dragged her to the gallows, Shin saw that his mother looked bloated. They forced her to stand on a wooden box, gagged her, tied her arms behind her back, and tightened a noose around her neck.

They did not cover her swollen eyes.

She scanned the crowd and found Shin. He refused to hold her gaze.

When guards pulled away the box, she jerked about desperately. As he watched his mother struggle, Shin thought she deserved to die.

Shin's brother looked gaunt and frail as guards tied him to the wooden post. Three guards fired their rifles three times. Bullets snapped the rope that held his forehead to the pole. It was a bloody, brain-splattered mess of a killing, a spectacle that sickened and frightened Shin. But he thought his brother, too, had deserved it.

Shin had invented the lie about his family's escape just before arriving in South Korea.

"There were a lot of things I needed to hide," he said. "I was terrified of a backlash, of people asking me, 'Are you even human?'"

"I was more faithful to guards than to my family. We were each other's spies. I know by telling the truth, people will look down on me."

"Outsiders have a wrong understanding of the camp. It is not just the soldiers who beat us. It is the prisoners themselves who are not kind to each other. There is no sense of community. I am one of those mean prisoners."

Shin said he did not expect forgiveness. He said he had not forgiven himself. He also seemed to be trying to do something more than expiate guilt. He wanted to explain -- in a way that he acknowledged would damage his credibility as a witness -- how the camp had warped his character.

He said that if outsiders could understand what political prison camps have done -- and are doing -- to children born inside the fence, it would redeem his lie and his life.

Excerpted from Blaine Harden's Escape From Camp 14 (Viking Penguin).

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Blaine Harden is a contributor to The Economist and has formerly served as The Washington Post's bureau chief in East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa. He is the author of Escape from Camp 14 and other books.

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