Dong-Hyuk Shin, advocate for human rights in North Korea and former prisoner at the notorious “Camp 14” North Korean labor camp, addresses the 5th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Dong-Hyuk Shin: I would like to thank everyone for coming to hear me. My name is Dong Hyuk Shin. I sincerely appreciate you inviting me here.
I was born in a political prisoner camp located in Kaechon, South Pyongan Province in North Korea, on 19 November, 1982. I don’t actually know why I was in a political prisoner camp. As far as I know, my father and mother were put in the prison camp when they were still quite young. During my 24 years of living in the prison camp, I never thought to ask why I have been born or why I would have to live there until I die.
As a child, the only thing that I knew about my situation was what I was told by our prison camp guard. He said you were all supposed to be killed but the law has saved you instead. Therefore, you all have to work hard to pay for the mercy that the law has shown you. You must pay for all the sins that your ancestors and family members committed until the day you die. That was all I knew about why I was in there.
We prisoners would eat only what they provided and do only what they told us to do. There was nothing we could do on our own. The prison camp guards taught us how to read and write, how to add and subtract numbers, and how to work in the camp. There was immediate punishment for us even when we made only a minor mistake. Those punishments included being beaten, being deprived of food or even public executions.
Now I will tell you a story. When I was seven years old, the guards lined up all of the children in the camp and searched our bodies. They did so to find anything that the prisoners were not supposed to purchase. At that moment, a guard found a few grains of wheat on a little girl who was the same age as me. As soon as the guard found it, he started beating the little girl mercilessly. The laws and regulations of the prison camp explicitly stated that no prisoner could eat or hide food. They also stated that if a prisoner ate food without permission, he or she would be publicly executed. For this regulation, the little girl had made a serious mistake. The guard beat this little girl. Eventually, she lost consciousness. After that, we never saw her again. That little girl was beaten to death, but the guards didn’t have to take the responsibility for that. She was a prisoner, and to them, she was even worse than an animal. No-one could do anything for her while she was beaten to death; we could only stand and watch because there was nothing we could do.
Ladies and Gentlemen, at this very moment, children in North Korean prison camps are being beaten and killed. Now I would like to ask you, [as a] Christian, what can you do for those poor children who live no better than animals and are dying in prison camps?
During my 24 years of life in prison camps, all I saw were guards that were in guards uniforms with guns and prisoners that were in prisoner uniforms. They only wanted us to see what they wanted us to see and we weren’t supposed to say anything. Inside the camp, there is no way that you can know anything of the outside world.  Prisoners watch each other and even report their own parents’ transgressions to the prison camp guards. If you don’t, you’d be punished even more severely for staying silent.
When I was 14 years old, my mother and brother wanted to escape the prison camp and I reported it. Then I had to watch their public execution; I was sitting in the front row. I watched them being killed but I could do nothing. In the prison camp, I never understood how parents could care for their children and how children cared for their parents; I never learned it. In the prison camps, there is nothing that parents can do for their children. And in the prison camps, there is nothing that children can do for their parents. This is because my parents are prisoners and I was a prisoner.
Many people ask me how such a thing can happen, but my only answer to this question is: yes, this can happen in prison camps. Prisoners in camps are considered nothing more than animals. There was nothing I could do for my mother and brother when they were executed right in front of my eyes. All that I could do was watch them die. The eyes of the camp guards at that moment were not human. I never saw any human emotions from those camp guards.
I understand how hard it is for you to believe and imagine all you have heard from me today. HHowever, I have to tell you this [because] even at this moment, there are many people who are dying in prison camps in North Korea. The only thing I can do for them is to tell you all how painful and miserable life in those prison camps really is. Those terrible stories that you heard from me today describe just many unimaginably horrible things that happened in prison camps in North Korea. Those stories I have told you today are nothing in comparison to the unbelievable things that I actually went through in the prison camp.
The only thing that I can do is to share with you my stories and the testimonies of the adults suffering in the prison camps. This is all I can do. The key solution to this problem is you. The whole world was very sad to see the corpses of the 6 million Jews who died in Nazi prison camps about 70 years ago. And we thought that this horrible tragedy was a thing of the past. Do you really think the Nazis horrendous actions are a thing of the past? Do you really think those 2 million people killed in Cambodia 40 years ago are a thing of the past? Do you think the terrible things that are happening in Sudan in Africa, Kosovo in Eastern Europe, and Syria in the Middle East, are things of the past? Unfortunately, they are not; they are [the] current reality. If we don’t act now, we will have to cry and feel pain again just as we did 70 years ago. This could happen to us tomorrow or it can happen to us in a year; we don’t have much time.
There is one thing that North Koreans do well; they die well. They die from public execution. They die from starvation. They die from crossing the border between China and North Korea. They die from human trafficking. All they can do is die. Are there really no saviours?
You here in front of me, please be our saviours. Please don’t just sit there playing with your eyes, feel it with your heart. You are the only hope for them.
Thank you very much for listening to my story. Thank you very much.