prison camp

The story of Shin Dong-Hyuk is amazing and inspirational. He was born in a prison camp in North Korea, punished for the “crime” of his uncle as part of the 3 generation “justice” system.  He knew nothing of the world outside the camp. All he knew was what he was taught in the camp. He was hungry all the time, but didn’t know any better. He was crushed but didn’t know any other way to feel. He didn’t know if the earth was round or flat. He regularly watched other prisoners being executed including his own family members. In one of the saddest comments ever made, he admitted in an interview that he didn’t know what love was. He didn’t even feel anything when his family was killed because it was so common place in the camp.

It was only when he met a new prisoner, one who had been to China, that he realized  there was more to the world than Camp 14. He found out about broiled chicken and freedom to travel and got his first taste for freedom. One day when he was working near the border of the camp, after 23 years imprisonment, he managed to escape and now tells his story in an effort to expose the system.

I find this an incredibly optimistic story for two reasons.

  1. Awareness is the first step to liberation

It’s only after he became aware that he was actually IN prison that he realized there could be life beyond prison.

It’s true for all of us, and especially people in awful, oppressive situations, that awareness is the first step to liberation. You won’t leave a relationship, job or any abusive situation until you become aware that there is more to life than your current experience. Maybe you also need to realize that you have a right to more, but it starts with awareness.

Hyok Kang, who escaped from North Korea in 1998 described his liberation,

I felt like a frog that had just come out of its pit, from which it had contemplated the circle of sky outlined by the rim, and taken it for the whole of the world. I had passed through to the other side of the mirror.

The people of North Korea will start the process of liberation once they become aware of how oppressed they are and see the colors outside of their bleak existence. Another refugee from North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee, thought her country was “the best on the planet”  when she was growing up. It wasn’t until the famine of the 90s that she began to wonder. She saw her first execution at age 7. She escaped the country at 14

Hearing stories of life beyond North Korea is SO important, and this is why the Kim Dynasty make it so hard to do. But it IS starting to happen. This was a revelation for me when I watched the 2012 TED video by Sokeel Park, a Research and Policy Analyst for Liberty in North Korea.  Substantial numbers of North Koreans are now accessing various forms of  media; foreign TV and radio broadcasts, and DVDs and cell phones brought into the country from China.

L’il Kim, as Bill Maher calls him, won’t be able to sustain his tyrannical rule once the people realize they deserve more. The weight of public opinion will force change, even slowly, but far more effectively than any international pressure.

  1. Understanding is the First Step to Peace

Helen Keller said, “I do not want the peace that passeth understanding. I want the understanding which bringeth peace.”

Now that Shin Dong-Hyuk and Hyeonseo Lee and others are telling the story of life inside North Korea, it’s helping the rest of the world to understand the reality. Without this, we could easily be distracted by the media images controlled by the North Korean government of a benevolent leader and his adoring people or the huffing and puffing of Kim Jong-un and his missiles.

It’s the understanding of reality that garners widespread criticism and pressure to change. It still has to be managed carefully so as not to inadvertently trigger a loose cannon to act rashly, but it will happen. China is now speaking out with unprecedented assertiveness. Things are changing. There are reasons for hope. Kim Jong-un’s big talking bluster may prove his undoing, as more and more people are saying “enough!”

Once people inside North Korea become aware of life outside, and once people outside of North Korea become aware of life inside, change will become inevitable. The way the world responds, in compassionate support, will show our true character.

Thich Nhat Hanh who was exiled from Vietnam because of his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, said,

Nonviolent action, born of the awareness of suffering and nurtured by love, is the most effective way to confront adversity.


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  1. Elaine says:

    Love this piece of writing, Ian.  Strong and hopeful. Thanks.

  2. ian says:

    thanks Elaine, hope you and Murray are well.

  3. Niki says:

    Stories lead-by-examples like this is always much more *stronger* and encouraging than just mere words or theory. It becomes much more inspirational, in a way, because people like us can also relate, in this real-life/real-world/reality. Thank you for sharing this.-From Indonesia-

  4. Eileen says:

    Ian, if people in N Korea are to know about the outside world, does that mean that we should visit and tell them?  Take photographs, videos, etc to show them what a different way of life the rest of the world leads?  To somehow make friends with Korean people.  There is very little internet access across the country.  The language barrier appears huge, and I am not sure that many would speak English.  And given that the government appoints guides that accompany you all the time you are in the country, how much contact would one have with ordinary people?  

  5. Doug Hoseck says:

    Thank you Ian for another powerful piece of writing. You really have a talent for finding the lessons in stories. Yet again, this was a welcome message delivered in a most timely fashion, by your pen and our universe.

  6. ian says:

    thanks Doug, hope all is well in your world.

  7. ian says:

    Eileen, i think China is the key, and technology (cell phones, dvds etc)

  8. Jo-Anne says:

    Yon (Ron) Moon a member of Calgary Korean United Church of Canada was an individual who helped people to escape North Korea via an underground net work of people through China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and then back to South Korea. His story is amazing, and I hope one day he would publish his ministry to those people in North Korea seeking freedom. This continues to be a ministry that the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea or PROK continues to have a ministry of Peace and Justice.

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