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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 7 page 20


Shin Dong-hyuk had luck. He broke into a farm shed and found some dried corn to eat and an old military uniform that kept him warm. He followed a road beside the river. No one was chasing him. He slept in haystacks, broke into houses, scavenged in garbage heaps.

Other vagabonds pointed him toward China. Catching rides on trucks and freight trains, he reached the Tumen River, which forms a border between North Korea and China. (See map in Notes section.) The Tumen is narrow and in winter is usually frozen. Shin bribed the sentries with cigarets and crackers. He gave them the faintly plausible line that he was a soldier going to visit family members living on the China side.

It was a month since his escape from Camp 14. When he reached the China side, he looked back, wondering if his father had been executed because of his escape.

Shin readily found low-pay farm work on the Chinese side, tending pigs and cattle. He got regular meals and sleep and baths — he got rid of his lice. His wounds healed. In late 2005 he headed south in China by bus and train. Without ID, he mostly panhandled. Finally, in Shanghai, he walked into a Korean restaurant looking for a job. A journalist dining there took it upon himself to escort Shin into the South Korean consulate for asylum. They flew him to Seoul in late summer 2006, almost two years since his escape.

In general, says Harden, North Korean defectors have a tough time fitting into Western socio-economies, including the South Korean variant. Their unemployment rate is four times higher than for other South Koreans, and their suicide rate is over two and a half times as high. They may feel educationally and culturally backward. They may not be self-starters and achievers. From their own perspective, they may be repulsed by those self-indulgent, manipulative aspects of capitalist society that those of us born into it do not fully appreciate. They may be paranoid, disinclined to trust what any government or organization says. And they may be haunted by memories.

Some such factors applied to Shin Dong-hyuk. South Korea placed him in a resettlement centre where teachers and counsellors tried to prepare him to function in capitalist society. They took him on field trips to banks and shopping centres. He received South Korean citizenship, a free apartment, and an $800 per month stipend for two years.

But Shin found it impossible to hold a job or complete school courses. He had nightmares. He saw his mother hanged, he saw Park electrocuted. He couldn’t eat or sleep. The doctors put him on meds for two and a half months.

He did take a shine to the internet, however, and he devoured news about North Korea. He learned about Nazi concentration camps. He began to believe the world needed to learn about North Korea’s camps too.

Shin came on a visa to California to work for an NGO, but that didn’t work out well at the time. He was reluctant to learn English, probably didn’t want to have to stammer out his experiences in a strange language. He had recurrent phases of self-loathing. Sometimes he screamed from his nightmares, waking his housemates. His life became kind of aimless. He just hung around Torrance and vicinity, picking up just enough English to chow down a couple times a week at the In-N-Out Burger.

He hooked up with some Christian friends and started to give God credit for his escape from Camp 14. That seemed to help, probably a big-picture spirit lightens your burden a bit.

Raised in Camp 14, Shin could never have normal emotional development. But nowadays, he tells his audiences, he is becoming human. He has learned to laugh and cry, he says. Of course, that's the outcome we’re looking for in his story. Yet we know, and he knows, there is no happy ending. Wherever on earth Shin goes, he will never be free of Camp 14.

Shin told Blaine Harden he would like to return to live near Camp 14 one day. Presumably he means after a change of regime. For him, that would be like a homecoming. He would like to see the mountains and the river again. I suspect Shin would also like to feel closer to people he left behind.