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

Life inside North Korea's Camp 14 so twisted 13-year-old Shin In Geun that he betrayed his mother and only brother.

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A North Korean soldier patrols inside the fence of a prison camp near the Chinese border / AP

Nine years after watching his mother's hanging, Shin In Geun squirmed through the electric fence that surrounds Camp 14 and ran off through the snow into the North Korean wilderness. It was January 2, 2005. Before then, no one born in a North Korean political prison camp had ever escaped. As far as can be determined, Shin is still the only one to do it.

He was 23 years old and knew no one outside the fence.

Within a month, he had walked into China. Within two years, he was living in South Korea. Four years later, he was living in Southern California.

Stunted by malnutrition, he is short and slight -- five feet six inches, about 120 pounds. His arms are bowed from childhood labor. His lower back and buttocks are scarred with burns from the torturer's fire. The skin over his pubis bears a puncture scar from the hook used to hold him in place over the fire. His ankles are scarred by shackles, from which he was hung upside down in solitary confinement. His right middle finger is cut off at the first knuckle, a guard's punishment for dropping a sewing machine in a camp garment factory. His shins, from ankle to knee on both legs, are mutilated and scarred by burns from the electrified barbed-wire fence that failed to keep him inside Camp 14.

"There is nothing in my life to compare with this burden."

Shin is roughly the same age as Kim Jong Un, the chubby third son of Kim Jong Il who took over as leader after his father's death in 2011.

Shin was born a slave and raised behind a high-voltage barbed-wire fence. His mother beat him, and he viewed her as a competitor for food. His father, who was allowed by guards to sleep with his mother just five nights a year, ignored him. His older brother was a stranger. Children in the camp were untrustworthy and abusive. Before he learned anything else, Shin learned to survive by snitching on all of them.

Love and mercy and family were words without meaning.

In Camp 14, Shin did not know literature existed. He saw only one book in the camp, a Korean grammar, in the hands of a teacher who wore a guard's uniform, carried a revolver on his hip, and beat one of his primary school classmates to death with a chalkboard pointer.

Unlike those who have survived a concentration camp, Shin had not been torn away from a civilized existence and forced to descend into hell. He was born and raised there. He accepted its values. He called it home.

When he was too young for school, his mother often left him alone in the morning, and came back from the fields at midday for lunch. Shin was always hungry and he would eat his lunch as soon as his mother left for work in the morning.

He also ate her lunch.

When she came back at midday and found nothing to eat, she would become furious and beat her son with a hoe, a shovel, anything close at hand. Some of the beatings were as violent as those he later received from guards.

Many years later, after she was dead and he was living in the United States, he would tell me that he loved his mother. But that was in retrospect. That was after he learned that a civilized child should love his mother.

She never talked to him about her past, her family, or why she was in the camp, and he never asked. His existence as her son had been arranged by guards. They chose her and the man who became Shin's father as prizes for each other in a "reward" marriage.

The eighth rule of Camp 14, as Shin was required to memorize it, said: "Should sexual physical contact occur without prior approval, the perpetrators will be shot immediately." If unauthorized sex resulted in a pregnancy or a birth, the woman and her baby were usually killed.

Shin's father told Shin that guards gave him Jang as payment for his skill in operating a metal lathe in the camp's machine shop. Their liaison produced two sons. They barely knew each other.

When he was ten, Shin left his house one evening and went looking for his mother. He was hungry and it was time for her to prepare dinner. He walked to a nearby rice field where his mother worked and asked a woman if she had seen her.

"She's cleaning the bowijidowon's room," the woman told him, referring to the office of the guard in charge of the rice farm.

Shin walked to the guard's office and found the front door locked. He peeked through a window on the side of the building. His mother was on her knees cleaning the floor. As Shin watched, the bowijidowon came into view. He approached Shin's mother from behind and began to grope her. She offered no resistance. Both of them removed their clothes. Shin watched them have sex.

He never asked his mother about what he saw, and never mentioned it to his father.

As school wound down on Friday, April 5, 1996, Shin's teacher surprised him. He told Shin that he could go home and eat supper with his mother.

Shin did not particularly want to spend the night at his mother's place. He still didn't trust her to take care of him; she still seemed tense in his presence. The teacher, however, told him to go home. So he went.

There was a bigger surprise when Shin got there. His brother, He Geun, had come home too.

Shin's mother was not delighted when her youngest son showed up unexpectedly for supper. She did not say welcome or that she had missed him.

"Oh, you are home," she said.

Then she cooked, using her daily ration of 700 grams of corn meal to make porridge in the one pot she owned. She and her sons ate on the kitchen floor. After he had eaten, Shin went to sleep in the bedroom.

Voices from the kitchen woke him up. He peeked through the bedroom door, curious about what his mother and brother were up to.

His mother was cooking rice. For Shin, this was a slap in the face. He had been served a watery corn soup, the same tasteless gruel he had eaten every day of his life. Now his brother was getting rice.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of rice in North Korean culture. It signifies wealth, evokes the closeness of family, and sanctifies a proper meal. Labor camp prisoners almost never eat rice and its absence is a daily reminder of the normality they can never have.

In the bedroom, Shin fumed. He also listened.

He Geun had not been given the day off. Without permission, he had walked away from his work post, where he had apparently done something wrong. His mother and brother were discussing what they should do.

Escape.

Shin was astonished to hear the word. His brother said it. He was planning to run. His mother was helping him. Her precious hoard of rice was food for flight.

Shin did not hear his mother say that she intended to go along. But she was not trying to argue her eldest into staying, even though she knew that if he escaped or died trying she and others in her family would be tortured and probably killed.

Shin's heart pounded. He was angry that she would put his life at risk for the sake of his older brother. He was afraid he would be implicated in the escape -- and shot.

He was also jealous that his brother was getting rice.

As the aggrieved 13-year-old struggled to contain his fear, Shin's camp-bred instincts took over: he had to tell a guard. He got up off the floor, went into the kitchen, and headed out the door.

"Where are you going?" his mother asked.

"To the toilet," he said.

Shin ran back to his school. It was one in the morning. He entered the school dormitory, woke his friend Hong Sung Jo, and found a guard.

Shin said he had something to tell him in exchange for more food and to be made "grade leader" at school. The guard agreed. Shin explained what his brother and mother were planning and where they were. The guard telephoned his superiors. He told Shin and Hong to go back to the dormitory and get some sleep. He would take care of everything.

On the morning after he betrayed his mother and brother, uniformed men came to the schoolyard for Shin.

He was handcuffed, blindfolded, pushed into the backseat of a jeep, and driven away in silence to an underground prison inside the camp.

Presented by

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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