Shin Dong-hyuk: Escape from the Total Control Zone

Shin Dong-hyuk (30) was born in a North Korean concentration camp, where labour slaves are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives. He is the only person known to have escaped from such a camp. Now he works tirelessly to tell the world about the North Korean atrocities.

At the age of 23, Shin escaped from the slave labour camp Kaechon (‘Camp #14’), also called a ‘Total Control Zone’. Based in Seoul, South Korea, since 2006, Shin has now embraced his lifetime commitment as a human rights activist, raising awareness on the inhuman life conditions imposed by the communist dictatorship in North Korea. His celebrity rose exponentially since the publication of his biography Escape from Camp 14, by former Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden. The book was translated into twenty languages.

Breeding new work force

Everything began in November 1982 when a man and a woman, both prisoners, were allowed to copulate. The man was offered a mate as a reward for his work efforts. They could meet five times a month. There was no place for love or for family plans in their relationship. The idea was conceived by the gulag chiefs as a breeding act intended to generate new workforce for the camp. That’s how Shin Dong-hyuk came into this world. He was sent out as a new part of the gulag production machinery. ‘My destiny was to rot down there, along with 50,000 other prisoners, until my very last day,’ Shin says.

The execution of his mother and brother

As far as Shin remembers, at the camp he attended over ninety public executions, including the ones of his mother and brother. After they had tried to escape, Shin had reported them to the guards, as he had been taught to do since his early childhood. Shin was only 14 years old and had to consider as normal whatever happened in front of his eyes, even his mom and brother being shot dead because he reported them.

Duty to tell

Shin will visit the Movies that Matter Festival 2013, where the documentary Camp 14 – Total Control Zone, that German filmmaker Marc Wiese made about Shin, will be featured. It will offer him the opportunity to expand his audience. ‘The North Korean issue is still too much about me,’ he says. ‘Human rights violations in North Korea should be considered a holocaust. I have the duty to tell about it.’


Shin intends to come back to the festival someday to present his own documentary, which he has recently started producing through his NGO Inside NK (North Korea) based in Washington D.C. The name of the NGO, that Shin operates from Seoul, is derived from the YouTube broadcasting show that Shin launched last year. The web series Inside NK portrays North Korean defectors that now live in South Korea. ‘Many people didn’t even know about the camps,’ he says. ‘Thanks to our show, more people care about human rights in North Korea. I am proud of myself for this initiative. I believe that all those efforts to get public engagement will change North Korea someday soon.’

By Stefano Valentino