Arguably, the most poignant interview ever broadcast on CBC Radio's The Current was the story this week about Shin Dong-hyuk -- possibly the only person ever to escape from a North Korean slave-labour prison camp.
All stories about prisons are harsh, but prisons, or political labour camps run by totalitarian regimes, can be beyond rational comprehension. And while the Soviet gulag with its millions confined, and China's with even more millions in custody, are inhumane and brutal, they pale to horrors of North Korea's slave camps. Especially in the year 2012.
As the only person ever to escape from a NK camp, Shin Dong-hyuk's story is important as it is unique in giving the world a peek inside that regime, and how the ruling Kim family maintains absolute control through fear and cruelty.
Journalist Blaine Harden discovered Shin, and tells his story in a book -- Escape from Camp 14. Harden, a translator and Shin were interviewed by Anna Maria Tremonti on the CBC, and provided a wealth of appalling reality that defies imagination.
Estimates are that roughly 200,000 are in NK slave-labour camps -- three generations of inmates. Shine was born in Camp 14. The only food inmates ate was a mush of corn, cabbage and salt -- supplemented by mice if they could catch them. And insects.
The electrified razor wire around the camp would kill any who touched it. Anyone caught talking about escaping was shot. Shin was conceived when guards allowed brief intimacy between a male and female inmate for obedient behaviour.
At age 14, he heard his mother and brother talking about escape, and was so fearful and indoctrinated that he asked a guard what he should do. The guard turned him in, and he was roasted over a charcoal fire to extract more information. Then he was forced to witness his mother and brother hanged.
Rather than feel guilt at their death, he was angry that their loose talk made life tougher for him. Normal, human instincts were channeled into self-preservation.
Shin and another inmate decided to escape, but the other guy was electrocuted trying to get past the fence. Shin crawled over his friend's dead body, which grounded the current. He fled north, stole and army uniform, got into China and made his way to Shanghai, where he reached the South Korean embassy and was taken to Seoul.
Among his recollections is a schoolgirl in Camp 14 being beaten to death by a teacher because she had a few kernels of corn in her pocket.
When Shin accidentally dropped a sewing machine, half his middle finger was chopped off as punishment. Guards had inmates beat other inmates who broke rules.
Responding to Tremonti's question how such inhumane treatment could go on when even Russia and China were easing restrictions, author Harden explained that three generations of Kims rule the world's most tyrannical, oppressive state.
Kim Il-sung instigated the slave camps, followed by Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un who maintain them. North Koreans know of these prisons and fear them to the point of absolute submissiveness and obedience.
Once convicted to a camp, relatives and children are confined to them.
Stalin used fear and intimidation as tools for control, North Korea even more so.
"Class enemies" destined for these horror camps include those who dare practice Christianity, or who don't keep photographs of Kim dusted and prominent in their homes.
If caught, listening to a foreign radio broadcasts can be fatal. As Shin's youthful experience indicated those with deviant thoughts, can be executed. Until he escaped at age 29, he had never tasted chicken or pork -- only corn mush.
China is North Korea's protector -- more fearful of having affluent, dynamic South Korea as a neighbour without impoverished NK as a buffer, than it is concerned about such niggling nuisances as basic human rights.
In negotiations with North Korea, neither the U.S. nor Japan, and certainly not China, ever raise the question of human rights, What's the use? Perhaps our politicians should read Escape from Camp 14.