Shin Dong-hyuk is a 29-year old Korean male making the activist rounds across the world. His message: raising awareness about North Korean gulags. His edge? He was born into one. And lived there his entire life – until he escaped in 2005 – a lifetime in a North Korean prison.
I first heard this story on NPR, in an interview with Blaine Harden, co-author of Shin’s memoirs, Escape From Camp 14. It was heart-wrenching to listen to. From that brief excerpt I got the general arc of the story; from the beginnings of his life in the camp, the constant, non-stop hunger that saw his mother as competition for food, the culture of snitching that led to Shin tipping off the authorities that would lead to his mother and brother’s executions – right in front of him… to his fateful encounter with the political dissident that introduced him to a larger world outside of the camp – a world that was round, not flat; a world that didn’t reward snitching and punish your relatives to the third generation; a world of cooked food and roasted meats – that would drive Shin to do the unthinkable – escape. He was driven by his stomach.
So it came to me as a surprise when, after a few days of hearing this broadcast, I received a package in the mail addressed to me at the (Korean-American) church where I serve as senior pastor of the English-speaking congregation. I opened it and found a hardcover copy of the book sent to me directly from Penguin publishing group:
Now, other than read it, what did Penguin expect me to do with the book personally, in response to what I would be reading here? Just because I am a distant cousin to less-than-fortunate North Koreans, a Korean-American community leader, no doubt discovered via google or directory search, what could I possibly do effectively about North Korean gulag-prison camps?
I read the book.
and in the end I have my opinions – not about the book itself, which was finely reported – but about the state of North Korea and its human rights abuses. Their blood is my blood, and I reflect on those things here. But do tell me if you can – what can we – Korean-American churchgoers – possibly do to address, curtail human-rights issues in North Korea?