For the perceived disloyalty of just one relative, three generations of a family – grandparents, parents, and children – are sent to perform hard labor on the brink of starvation in brutal North Korean prison camps, according to a young man who says he was born in one of the camps.
Shin Dong Hyuk, 30, is believed to be the only person born in a North Korean prison camp who has ever escaped to tell about it. In "Three Generations of Punishment," which will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES tonight, Dec. 2 (7:30-8:30 PM, ET/7:00-8:00 PM, PT) on the CBS Television Network, Shin tells Anderson Cooper that he grew up with almost no knowledge of the world beyond the prison camp's electrified fence.
"Did anybody ever explain to you why you were in a camp?" Cooper asks Shin. "No," Shin says, through a translator. "Because I was born there, I just thought that those people who carry guns were born to carry guns and prisoners like me were born as prisoners." Watch an excerpt.
He says he had no idea that America existed or that the world was round. For the first two decades of his life, he says, he never thought about escaping because he thought the rest of the world was just like the prison camp.
Shin paints a devastating portrait of life in Camp 14, a political prison located in the mountains 50 miles north of North Korea's capital, Pyongyang. He describes being tortured, seeing a little girl beaten to death for stealing a few kernels of corn, and watching his mother and brother executed before his eyes. Hunger was a pervasive factor of everyday life, he tells Cooper. Inmates were fed a thin corn gruel with cabbage day-in and day-out. The prisoners were so hungry, Shin says, they ate rats and insects to keep from starving. "The guards always told us, 'Through hunger, you will repent,''' Shin says.
Shin believes the reason he and his family were in Camp 14 is because two of his uncles defected to South Korea during the Korean war. Under North Korea's practice of "three generations of punishment," that would be enough to send the entire extended family to prison camps for life.
Human rights investigator David Hawk tells Cooper that North Korea's first dictator, Kim Il Sung, instituted this practice of "three generations of punishment" to eliminate any opposition to the regime. "It's unique in the 20th or 21st century," Hawk says. "Mao didn't do it. Stalin didn't do it. Hitler, of course, tried to exterminate entire families. But in the post-World War II world, it's only [North] Korea that had this practice."
According to human rights groups and the United Nations, Camp 14 is one of several North Korean prison camps housing an estimated 150,000 political prisoners. North Korea has denied that it has any political prisons, but has refused to allow outside observers to inspect Camp 14 and other sites.
Though there is no way to verify all the details of Shin's story, the South Korean government and human rights investigators believe him, in part because his story is consistent with satellite photos and the testimony of former prisoners from other camps.
In 2005, Shin says he escaped from Camp 14 and then stole and bribed his way across North Korea's border with China. Over the course of a year, he worked his way through China until he was able to sneak into the South Korean Consulate in Shanghai and claim asylum. Today, he lives in Seoul, South Korea, but he travels frequently to the U.S., where he works with human rights groups.