Published April 13, 2012
To understand North Korea, you must first wrap your mind around the utter horror of its gulag system. More than 200,000 men, women and children are currently interned in these concentration death camps. Only 3 people have ever escaped. Fox News interviewed one of them this week.
The man's name is Shin Dong-hyuk. He was born inside Camp 14, the notorious labor camp for political dissidents just south of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
"The first rule was that you cannot escape," Shin said. "And there were other parts to that first rule such as if you attempt to escape you will be shot to death and those that sought the attempt to escape another prisoner and failed to report, they themselves would be shot as well."
But at the age of 22 Shin did manage to escape. After plotting with a fellow inmate, who had grown up on the outside, Shin Dong Hyuk and his friend made a run for the electric fence as they were gathering wood. His friend was electrocuted on the fence. That allowed Shin to climb over the body and avoid injury.
Shin said he was willing to risk death for the chance to be free.
"My feeling at that time, even if I were to get shot and die, was that I would want to experience even just for one day of that freedom and that life that this prisoner had told me so much about. Unfortunately, it was only I who was able to escape successfully."
He then made his way to the border, walking across a frozen river to China.
To this day Shin bears both the physical and emotional scars of his time in prison. As a child, he worked in a sewing factory. One day when he mistakenly dropped one of the machines, his punishment was to have the tip of his middle finger cut off.
He has severe burn scars on his back from being tortured. He described how prison guards punished him after his mother and brother tried to escape, even though Shin was the one who turned them in. They hung him by his arms and feet and set him over an open fire.
Shin said he didn't understand family in the normal sense. He knew that he would be punished if his mother and brother tried to escape. So to him, there was no choice but to tell the guards of their plan and avoid certain execution.
"I was 14 years old when my mother and brother were publically executed, but I felt no emotion," Shin said. "Rather, I felt relieved that I was not the one that was tied to the wooden stake of the executing, so that was what I felt at the time... I felt my mom and brother broke the prison camp rules so that they deserved what they were going through at that moment."
He watched as his mother was hanged and his brother was killed by a firing squad. It was two years after escaping to South Korea when he finally felt any guilt.
"Right now, it's hard for me to understand what I did at that time... So after I come to South Korea and learned about the outside world and learned about family, I was only 14 years old at that time, I realized I had committed an unimaginable thing and I felt much guilt at that time."
Guards used starvation to control him and the rest of the prison population.
"All the prison inmates in the political prison camp in North Korea had a habit of looking down at ground when they were walking to and from different places," Shin said. "It was a habit to just look down to ground. The reason for that was to find any food or scraps of food."
He describes what he did eat.
"As I was walking, on the ground I saw two pieces of two kernels of corn that was in the cow dung that was on the ground," Shin said. "Without giving it much thought, I took the two kernels of corn and did whatever I could to wash it or clean it up. I ate them because I was so hungry."
Author Blaine Harden has detailed Shin's extraordinary escape and conditions in these modern day concentration camps in a new book, "Escape from Camp 14."
"He grew up without emotion," Harden said. "He grew up being raised by guards and he was always hungry, and everything he did was to position himself so he could get more food. His parents were chosen for him by the guards as a result of a reward marriage, and he was raised by guards -- not by his parents -- to be a kind of farm animal.
It's important for people to understand why North Korea has these labor camps, Harden says. It is not really about labor. It's about control and terror. Political dissidents are punished three generations deep. If a man is punished for questioning the regime, his entire family from his wife, children and grandchildren will all join him in prison. That's how they control their population. Through fear.