On November 19, 2012, my North Korea Study Group at Harvard Kennedy School hosted Mr. Shin Dong Hyuk to be a guest speaker for over 225 students, professors, and community members. For over an hour, Mr. Shin shared stories and lessons from being born and raised for 23 years in a North Korean total-control zone concentration camp. I will share with you the stories that he shared with us that night.
Mr. Shin said prisoners have only one freedom in this camp: the freedom to be born. A child is permitted to depend on her mother only when inside the womb. Once a child exits the womb, she must survive on her own. The first thing a baby sees upon opening her eyes is armed prison guards. Since infancy, a baby is trained to know, and know only, the prison camp regulations: The worst crime a prisoner can commit is to attempt to flee the camp. This was ingrained in his mind and body since childhood.
Mr. Shin flipped through a few Powerpoint photos that showed millions of emaciated corpses in massive graves at various Nazi concentration camps, and rows of skulls that formerly belonged to over 2 million people who were exterminated by the Khmer Rouge in killing fields. Mr. Shin said, with the evidence of dead bodies, the ICC punished Nazi leaders and Khmer Rouge ringleaders. "We think of Cambodian killing fields as history that took place forty long years ago. 'Never again,' we think."
Shin Dong Hyuk and me after the event.
After the talk, we took him a mini surprise birthday celebration. It was his 30th birthday that day, and his first birthday cake. After blowing out the candle, he said “I’m happy.” When someone asked him what he meant by “happy,” he said, “it’s something you say when your face feels it ought to smile.”