October 29, 2007 / 9:20 AM / 11 years ago

North Korean defector tells of being born a prisoner

SEOUL (Reuters) - One of North Korea’s cruelest prisons is a place where beatings and executions are common, and so isolated that a child born behind its barbed wire may never hear of the state’s leaders, an escapee said on Monday.

“People doubt me when I say I didn’t know about Kim Jong-il or Kim Il-sung, but I really didn’t know about them,” defector Shin Dong-hyuk told foreign reporters on Monday.

Shin was born in 1982 in North Korea’s Camp No. 14 in Kaechon, South Pyongan province, which is north of Pyongyang.

He has just published a book on his life at the camp called “Escape to the Outside World”.

North Korea uses guilt by association to keep the public in line, human rights groups have said. Shin’s father was sent to the camp because his relatives escaped to the South.

As a reward for being a model prisoner, his father was allowed to marry another inmate selected for him by guards, Shin said. The family was quickly separated.

“Since we were born, we were taught that our parents committed crimes, and we were to work hard to wash off their sins as children of criminals,” he said.

Shin watched as guards executed his mother and brother for trying to escape. He was beaten severely and burnt as punishment for being from the same family.

At a time when most children are about to enter middle school, Shin was sent to work in a factory where he and his peers ate mice to stave off hunger. Several of his friends perished in workplace accidents.

Human rights groups say North Korea maintains an archipelago of prison camps and uses public executions to intimidate the masses.

Facing hunger and with curiosity about the outside world, Shin finally escaped, pushing his way through a barbed wire fence.

It took him a while to get to the border with China, where he bribed a guard to let him pass. He eventually made his way to South Korea in 2006.

Shin now knows well about North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and has a message for a person known by the state’s propaganda machine as the “Dear Leader”:

“I want to tell him try living in the prison camp for just an hour.”

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