'I was so brainwashed in North Korea death camp I betrayed my family': Survivor's shocking story
Even after he was forced to see his mum being hanged and his brother being shot dead, he was convinced he had done the right thing
When 13-year-old Shin Dong-hyuk overheard his mother planning an escape from their North Korean death camp, he knew exactly what he had to do.
He told the guards everything and watched as his mum and brother were dragged away.
And in an even more shocking confession, Shin has revealed that after he was forced to see his mum being hanged and his brother being shot dead, he was convinced he had done the right thing.
He thought they deserved to die for their treachery.
Shin was born in notorious Camp 14. The grim battle to survive in the gulag 50 miles north of capital Pyongyang was the only life he knew.
It is only now – as the sole inmate known to have escaped the prison camp – that he can recognise the true horror of what he did.
As the world watches the deluded posturing of North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un, Shin’s harrowing story shines a rare light on the most secretive country on Earth.
While the regime pumps out stage-managed pictures of military parades, the country’s 24 million people live in terror of being sent to one of the slave labour camps that are dotted around the country.
Around 200,000 people are detained in these hell holes where torture and rape are common.
Most inmates die in the camps. Escape is almost impossible which makes Shin’s story so compelling.
Since he fled he has devoted his life to telling people the truth about North Korea.
But it was not until recently that he revealed his darkest secret about betraying his mum and brother.
Far from being rewarded for his betrayal, Shin was tortured for four days as guards demanded more information.
“I was taken to a chamber full of torture instruments,” he says.
“I was stripped, my legs were cuffed and my hands were tied with rope. I was hung by my legs and hands from the ceiling.
"Someone started a charcoal fire and brought it under my back. I felt the heat at my waist and shrieked.
"My torturers pierced me with a steel hook near the groin to stop me writhing. The pain was so bad that I passed out.”
What did he hope to get out of informing on his own family? He says: “Being full for the first time.
"But the biggest reason was simply that I was supposed to report things like that.
“If I could meet my mother and brother through a time machine I would apologise.
"By telling this story I think I can kind of repent for what I did.”
His body still bears the scars of torture and his escape.
Crisscrossing his legs are the terrible burns he suffered as he clambered over the dead body of his friend who was killed by the electrified barbed wire that encircled Camp 14.
Shin, 30, was born in the camp, punished for the political sins of his parents who were forced into marriage inside the prison and were allowed to sleep together for a few nights a year as a rare reward for good work.
Inmates, fed gruel made of cornmeal and cabbage, live in a constant state of hunger, and an estimated 40% starve to death.
The best chance of survival is by scavenging rats and cockroaches to eat.
Without a proper diet, prisoners develop hunchbacks from bending over while working in the fields.
In winter, wearing the most threadbare of clothes, fingers are often lost to frostbite.
Knowing nothing else, Shin believed this life was normal.
“I had no concept of human rights. I was only destined to live and die in this camp.
"We were always hungry, and the guards always told us ‘through hunger you will repent’.”
Guards are brutal and inmates are terrorised for fun but very few prisoners attempt to flee.
Anyone who tries, plans, or knows of a potential escape is executed and all the other detainees are forced to watch.
School was no safe haven. Teachers would beat students to death for minor rule breaking.
There are also medieval torture devices in underground cells.
Shin fell foul of the casual brutality of the guards.
When he accidentally broke a sewing machine in a factory, he had the tip of one finger chopped off as punishment.
Daily life was an exercise in survival. He says: “We woke up before sunrise and worked all day.
"It was manual labour well into night until the prison guards deemed it fit for us to go to sleep.
“It was repeated day in, day out. And it was something that I thought was very natural.
“There was no way for the prisoners to know what was beyond the electrified fence, whether it was a world of prison camps or a different society.
"My mother and father never talked to me about the outside world.”
The Korean peninsula has been troubled for decades.
It was occupied by Japan in the first half of the 20th century before being split in two after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War.
The USSR imposed Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung as leader in the North in 1946, while the US controlled the South.
Following the US withdrawal, the North invaded the South, sparking the Korean War which raged from 1950 until 1953.
An uneasy truce has been maintained since.
While those in the South live in a democracy, those in the North live in fear of being accused of dissent against Kim Jong-un and sent to one of the concentration camps.
While Shin was working in a factory at Camp 14 he became friends with a man called Park, a 40-year-old political prisoner.
Park was well educated and had even travelled outside the country before falling foul of the despotic regime.
He told Shin of the world outside. And there was something that lit a fire in the young man’s heart – the promise of a good dinner.
Shin says: “I paid most attention to the food he ate outside the camp – like barbecued pig.
"The most important thing was the idea that a prisoner like me could eat chicken and pork if I escaped. I still think of freedom as broiled chicken.”
The pair began to plot their escape. On January 2, 2005 they were posted to work near the electric fence on top of a mountain ridge.
When the guards were out of sight they took their chance but Park was electrocuted.
Shin used his friend’s body as a shield to cross the electric fence but still suffered terrible burns when his legs touched the wire.
But he broke out, found an old military uniform in a nearby barn and, posing as a soldier, made his way north to the border with China.
From there he travelled to South Korea where he still lives.
Shin is now a powerful voice speaking out for those left behind in his homeland. Astonishingly, one of the things he talks about is forgiveness.
He says: “I used to feel intense hatred for the guards. But now I think they are victims too.
“I hope they will realise their wrongdoings and grab a chance to start a new life. The biggest change is that I can forgive them.”