I committed a grave sin against my father when I fled the North Korean prison camp where I was born. I was 23 years old, fully aware that my escape from Camp 14 would trigger his torture and probably his execution.
Then, I knew nothing of love between fathers and sons. My wild hunger for what lay beyond the camp’s electric fence trumped everything else, even fear of my own death. Leaving my father behind to suffer and to die, I ran off, first to China, then to South Korea and the United States.
That was nearly 10 years ago. My life has since been consumed by regret and by concern about my father and all the others I left behind. Trying to raise awareness of the human rights catastrophe in my homeland, I have told my ghastly story around the world. “Escape from Camp 14, ” a book about my life by journalist Blaine Harden (who assisted me with the writing of this column), has been published in 28 languages. I was “Witness No. 1” before a U.N. inquiry that questioned more than 300 survivors of abuse in North Korea. It concluded this year that crimes against humanity have been and are being committed by the government there. It also found that responsibility for these crimes rests on the shoulders of the country’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un.
At the United Nations this month, I found a measure of victory and vindication, as 111 nations voted to refer North Korea for trial in the International Criminal Court. The referral, though, is nonbinding and must be acted on by the Security Council, and that seems unlikely. China has indicated it will use its veto to block any trial.
Still, the vote was a stinging and historic humiliation for North Korea, and its government worked feverishly to prevent it. For a while, Pyongyang tried accommodation. It released Americans it had held prisoner, invited a U.N. human rights official to visit the country (but not the political prison camps) and deigned to discuss human rights for the first time with foreign diplomats.
Then it resorted to threats. A North Korean U.N. representative said that if the vote passed, Pyongyang would have no choice but to explode a fourth nuclear device. The country warned last weekend of “catastrophic and unimaginable consequences” of what it calls the “human rights racket.”
North Korea has also tried to blacken my character, accusing me in videos released on YouTube of being a liar, a rapist and a thief.
In one of these videos, my 70-year-old father appeared and joined the chorus of my accusers. He said that neither he nor I had ever lived in a political labor camp. It was an extraordinary shock. I had thought he was dead. Now I know that his torture continues at the hands of his North Korean jailers, who are forcing him to lie. My guilt for abandoning my father is more painful than ever. I dearly miss him. I love him.
In Camp 14, there was no concept of family. I did not know a child’s heart. We were starving animals competing against each other — betraying each other — for scraps of food. The feelings I have now for my father were learned only after I escaped the hell of that prison.
Since watching the video of my father, I have felt an overwhelming desire to travel to North Korea and be with him. My friends, of course, have warned me that I would be killed.
But I want to give North Korea a chance to live up to its claims that its citizens are living happily and in freedom. If it seeks credibility, the regime should welcome my request to meet my father, who doesn’t have much time left on this earth, so that he can see and touch my face. It should be an open, publicized, official visit that includes an on-the-ground inspection of Camp 14.
Realistically, such a visit is unlikely, and my guilt about my father will only deepen. In all probability, China will use its U.N. veto to insulate Kim and his underlings from accountability for crimes against humanity that continue to this day.
Camp 14 still operates, as do other political labor camps that imprison up to 120,000 people. Camp guards continue to punish children and their parents, working them to death as slaves and snitches in a world without love.
For all my guilt about my father’s continuing torment, I will not be silenced. Injustice cannot cover up justice. I have an obligation to those still in the camps, as does everyone in the outside world.
Shin Dong-hyuk is a human rights activist who lives in Seoul.