“original sin” in North Korea

Shin Dong-hyuk was born 30 years ago inside Camp 14, a prison labour camp located about 55 miles north of Pyongyang, where the only sentence is life. No one born in Camp 14 or any of the other four sprawling political prisons in the mountains of North Korea has ever left their respective camp. No-one except Shin, who successfully escaped from prison in 2005, crossed the border with China and, after several difficult years in that country, finally managed to reach South Korea.

By order of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder, crimes extend to family members across three generations. Shin’s “original sin” was to have been born the nephew of two men who tried to flee to South Korea after the war of 1950-53. ….

Like many North Korean exiles, Shin has fallen in with the Christian community that sometimes, though not in his case, helps escapees to China to find their way to South Korea. I can appreciate the comfort of organised religion but I’m interested in whether he is bothered by Christianity’s concept of original sin. That, after all, was a constant theme of life in the camp, where he was considered corrupted by the crime of his uncles. “It is similar in a way. In the prison camp, every day I repented and confessed the bad things I’d done to the prison guards,” he says of the daily struggle sessions. “And in church, too, I repent the things I have done wrong. The formula is the same but the difference is that in the prison camp I was forced to do this. In church I confess of my own volition.”

David Pilling, “Lunch with the FT: Shin Dong-hyuk“, Financial Times, 31 August 2013.

Shin Dong-hyuk’s story was recorded in Escape from Camp 14: One man’s remarkable odyssey from North Korea to freedom in the West, by American journalist Blaine Harden (Viking Penguin, 2012).


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