When President Barack Obama was in Korea this week, we heard a lot about the dangers of North Korea's nuclear aspirations.
But we didn't hear much about a young man named Shin Dong Hyuk, who was bred, like a farm animal, inside a North Korean prison camp after guards ordered his prisoner-parents to mate. And yet, Shin arguably has as much to teach about Korea's past and future as the cycle of negotiation, bluster and broken promises over the nuclear issue.
"Shin was born a slave and raised behind a high-voltage barbed-wire fence."
So writes Blaine Harden, a former East Asia correspondent for the Washington Post, in a soon-to-be-published account of Shin's life, Escape from Camp 14.
Harden describes a closed world of unimaginable bleakness. We often speak of someone so unfortunate as to grow up "not knowing love." Shin grew up literally not understanding concepts such as love, trust or kindness. His life consisted of beatings, hunger and labor. His only ethos was to obey guards, snitch on fellow inmates and steal food when he could. At age 14, he watched his mother and older brother executed, a display that elicited in him no pity or regret. He was raised to work until he died, probably around age 40. He knew no contemporaries who had experienced life outside Camp 14.
At 23, Shin escaped and managed, over the course of four years, to make his way through a hungry North Korea — a larger, more chaotic version of Camp 14 — into China and, eventually, the United States. He is, as far as is known, the only person born in the North Korean gulag to escape to freedom.
Improbably, his tale becomes even more gripping after his unprecedented journey, after he realizes that he has been raised as something less than human. He gradually, haltingly — and, so far, with mixed success — sets out to remake himself as a moral, feeling human being. How is this tale even possible in the 21st century?
"Fashioning a comprehensive policy to deal with North Korea's nuclear programs, its human rights abuses, and its failed economy is hardly child's play," explains Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor, in his forthcoming book, The Impossible State. "No administration thus far has been successful at addressing one, let alone all three."
With 25 million people, it is a failed state in every way but one, which is coddling the regime and a small elite that resembles a criminal syndicate more than a traditional bureaucracy. While cautioning that predictions are risky, Cha argues that "the end is near." The next U.S. presidential term, he predicts, is likely to face "a major crisis of the state in North Korea, and potentially unification."
South Koreans, living in freedom, fear a North Korean collapse — not only for the potential financial cost but also because they sense how different their erstwhile countrymen have become. Not all North Koreans live as stunted a life as Shin did inside Camp 14, but generations of isolation, propaganda and warped morality take a toll.
When he watched his teacher beat a 6-year-old classmate to death for stealing five grains of corn, Shin says he "didn't think much about it."
"I did not know about sympathy or sadness," he says. "Now that I am out, I am learning to be emotional. I have learned to cry. I feel like I am becoming human."
But seven years after his escape, Harden writes, Shin does not believe he has reached that goal. "I escaped physically," he says. "I haven't escaped psychologically."
Fred Hiatt is editor of the Washington Post's editorial page.
© 2012 Washington Post