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Freedom Collection

Interviews with Shin Dong-hyuk

Interviewed March 4, 2024

There was no special or particular reason why I decided to escape the prison camp. Looking back now, it was a surprising, almost ridiculous reason why I decided to escape.

I heard about the outside world from a newly arrived prisoner, who had lived outside the camp. He told me about the kind of food people ate outside the camp.

After hearing this, the desire to eat whatever food one wanted — eating — is what made me decide to escape.//

The best way to describe the food that I ate in the prison camps is basically corn and salted vegetables. That´s all I remember eating.

We produced other types of food as manual laborers inside the prison camps, but we were not allowed to eat what we produced.

Of course, in the prison camp, there were armed guards that surrounded the facility. There was also an electrified fence.

Those two things were great challenges in my escape attempt, but still I had the desire to eat, despite those challenges.

I thought that even if I were to die tonight, as long as I died with a full stomach, having eaten what I wanted, it would be worth getting killed.

That desire to eat, that freedom to eat whatever I wanted to eat, was what compelled me to escape.

During my escape, as I crossed [the camp’s perimeter], my legs were caught in the electrified fence, and I still bear the scars from that injury.

There was not much I could do once I crossed the fence and escaped from the prison camp. It was winter time so it was very cold. It was night time so it was very dark.

I had to steal clothes to change out of my prison uniform. I basically ended up stealing whatever food I could from houses. That is how I survived immediately after escaping from the prison camp.

There were many times I went hungry, but looking back, I was fortunate for not freezing to death in the cold.

When I saw the life that existed, the world that existed outside the prison camp, looking back now, I would use the word “heaven” to describe what I saw.

People outside the camp were walking around freely wearing whatever clothes they like. Laughing and singing.

These were new things for me and I was filled with curiosity.

I crossed the border into China in 2005. Of course, looking back now, after South Koreans have studied this issue, it wasn´t that difficult compared to how it is now for North Koreans to cross the border into China.

[Since coming to power in 2011, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has cracked down on defectors attempting to leave North Korea. Kim Jong Un (1983 – ) is the supreme leader of North Korea. He is the son of Kim Jong Il (1941 – 2011) and the grandson of Kim Il Sung (1912 – 1994)]

Many people were doing it, and during my escape through North Korea, I overheard many people talking about China, and about how things were better in China.

So I decided to go to China as well.

I crossed the river at night time. I was lucky in terms of my situation, and how I crossed over into China.

After living for about a year in hiding and working in the northeastern part of China where there was intense surveillance and monitoring by the Chinese authorities regarding North Korean refugees, I decided to go further south.

During my journey to the southern part of China, I came into contact with a South Korean citizen. He told me about the South Korean embassy and led me there.

That is where I was processed and I knew that the embassy was a safe haven, a safe place, and that I would be taken to South Korea, to a safe country.