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Beverly Beckham

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is no one’s ‘friend’

Shin Dong-hyuk spent his first 23 years in a North Korean prison camp, where he says he was tortured and subjected to forced labor before escaping.

Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Shin Dong-hyuk spent his first 23 years in a North Korean prison camp, where he says he was tortured and subjected to forced labor before escaping.

Basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman talks nonsense about North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and his words are all over the Internet. He calls Kim “a friend,” “a great guy.” And it’s news.

Veteran journalist Blaine Harden writes a disturbing book, “Escape from Camp 14,” about a damaged human being who escaped from a torture chamber cordoned off by electric fence in North Korea, and the reviews are stellar, but there’s hardly any chit-chat at all.

Continue reading below

There needs to be.

A child born in 1982 in the United States entered a civilized world. “Cats” opened on Broadway. The Cardinals beat the Brewers to win the World Series. Knoxville hosted The World’s Fair. “E.T.” broke box office records. Life expectancy was 74.5 years. Not a bad beginning.

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in 1982, but in a barbaric world, in a North Korean prison camp where people are tortured and starved every day. It was a beginning and an end. No chance for Shin for a better life.

His first memory isn’t of a song or a baseball game. It’s of being 4 years old and standing in a crowd of people — being forced to stand there — to watch another prisoner shot to death.

Shin was born in captivity solely because in the 1950s two of his uncles defected to South Korea, something that thousands of others did. But North Korea continues to extract punishment for these “crimes.”

“[E]nemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations,” Kim II Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, wrote into law in 1972.

Shin’s life was subhuman because of this. He slept with his mother in their single room on a concrete floor. (His father, chosen for his mother by prison guards, was allowed to visit only “a few times a year.”) He had no bed, chair, heat, running water, soap, or love, only the drive to stay alive. He wore the clothes on his back, stiff with dirt, until they wore out, and he had so little food that he often stole his mother’s, even though she beat him for this.

Shin ate rats to stay alive.

School was a prison within this prison. There were no books and pencils. His teacher wore a guard’s uniform and carried a gun. No matter how sick a child, being absent was not allowed. Neither was concealed food. When Shin was 6, a girl in his class was caught with five kernels of corn in her pocket. The teacher beat her to death with a wooden pointer in front of 40 other 6-year-olds.

“What I saw in that country, I saw in that country, and I saw people respect him and his family and that’s what I mean about that,” Rodman said about the Swiss-educated boy despot now responsible for the imprisonment of, according to the US State Department, some 200,000 political prisoners.

In his book, Harden describes only one prisoner, the only known person born in a North Korean work camp to ever escape. “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.

In December 2008, after Harden told Shin’s story for the first time in a Washington Post front-page story, the paper ran an editorial questioning the indifference of the world to these prison camps.

Four years later, more camps have been built. You can see this on Google Earth.

Harden thought telling Shin’s story might change things, that if people were informed, people would react.

But we don’t get informed in our culture. We get entertained.

Beverly Beckham can be reached at BevBeckham@aol.com.

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