Dong-hyuk, then just 13, was born in the prison known as Camp 14, not far from Pyongyang. Camp 14 is part of a network of political prisons believed to be the largest in the world, where an estimated 150,000 dissidents and their families live in conditions reminiscent of Holocaust-era concentration camps.
As he was brought to the camp’s execution field, Dong-hyuk realized he wasn’t the one due to be killed that day — it was his mother and brother. The boy calmly watched the executions, he says now, having been brainwashed into believing his family members deserved to die. After all, he was the one who had turned them in.
“They hanged her and shot him for planning to escape,” Dong-hyuk, now 31, told JTA in Brussels. “I was only brought to watch.”
In 2005, Dong-hyuk (pronounced dong-YUKE) became the only known survivor of Camp 14. In the years since, he has traveled the world raising the alarm about North Korea’s treatment of political dissidents, including five visits to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and a meeting with survivors in 2009 at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. He plans to visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem later this year.
Human rights investigators believe that many of the prisoners in North Korea’s six known political prisons were either born there, like Dong-hyuk, or placed there because their families had ties to suspected dissidents. Dong-hyuk’s father and grandfather were incarcerated because two of the grandfather’s brothers had defected, Dong-hyuk said in a recent interview on “60 Minutes.”
Dong-hyuk’s accounts of his treatment at the hands of sadistic guards, and the arbitrary torture to which he was subjected, are reminiscent of Holocaust accounts. But Dong-hyuk is careful to avoid such comparisons, saying the only thing Nazi camps have in common with those in North Korea is “that they never should have existed.” Yet he feels a certain kinship with survivors of the Nazis.
“Through the horrific stories of Holocaust survivors, I could see my own life in the prison camps,” Dong-hyuk said. “I could see my own experiences in theirs.”
Yoon Yeo-sang of the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights is not so reticent, likening global inaction on North Korean camps to the world’s indifference to the Nazi genocide in Europe.
“What goes on in North Korea is maybe worse than the Holocaust, where the Nazis were active for 12 years,” Yeo-sang said. “The enslavement of the camps in North Korea has been going on for decades.”
Dong-hyuk lost a piece of his index finger as punishment for breaking a machine at a military factory where he and his family were forced to work. Another time he was given a choice between hunger and a beating. He chose the beating.
“We were constantly hungry,” he said. “Some ate rats and insects to…