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Look Into a North Korean Penal Camp

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Posted on Dec 19, 2013
Global Screen

An animated still from “Camp 14: Total Control Zone.”

The harrowing story of Shin Dong-hyuk, born in a North Korean punishment camp where he endured violence and brutality until he escaped at age 23, is told in a new documentary.

“Camp 14: Total Control Zone,” by German filmmaker Marc Wiese, shows camps where inmates live for life. Aside from Dong-hyuk, who fled in 2005, no one is known to have escaped. The Guardian reports:

Shin, who recently gave testimony before a UN commission, would rather not talk about the past, but he cannot be free of it. Physically, in the film, he is in Seoul. Mentally and emotionally, he is still back in camp 14. To date, he is the only known person to have been born in a total control zone camp and escaped, and some have questioned his story. “We made something like 15 lie detector tests with him,” says Wiese, who first read about the young Korean in the Washington Post. By now there can be little doubt of his veracity, or that his experiences weigh heavily on him.

The producers wanted to shoot him talking in a studio, but that was “impossible”. “I had to build him a setting where he felt comfortable,” says Wiese. Instead, they worked in Shin’s home, in a bare space with bedding on the floor, similar to the way he lived with his mother, as a child, in the camp. Even then, “it was complicated for him”.

… Wiese’s work has taken him from the Bosnian war to Palestine, Belfast and South Africa; he has talked to war criminals and people who have ordered suicide bombings. Even he was shocked, though, by Shin’s reply when, hoping to start the film with an upbeat story, he asked him for a memory from when he was four. “So he told me, ‘I have a memory; it was a public execution.’ I said, ‘Did your mother talk to you about that? Did she try to help you?’ He looked at me and was shaking his head, and he said, ‘No. For what? It was happening every week.’ And just for me, personally, I said, ‘Shin, what did your mother teach you?’ and he said, ‘Only one thing: how to survive.’”


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Survival meant living by the rules, which included informing on anyone in breach of camp regulations. When Shin overhead his mother apparently plotting to help his brother escape, he told his teacher. Later, he had to watch as his mother was publicly hanged and his brother killed by firing squad. He felt nothing. If he hadn’t informed, he and his father would probably have been executed, he says. This revelation takes Camp 14: Total Control Zone into the area of Primo Levi’s “grey zone”, where the distinction between victim and perpetrator becomes disturbingly blurred. “For me, this was never a victim story,” says Wiese. “That would be, honestly, boring. Camp 14 is, for me, a film which is showing how a system is able to condition three people. In the beginning, Shin and the two guards are very opposite. But in the middle, as he is talking about his mother’s execution and they are talking about torture, they are very parallel. Shin is saying, ‘Well, she did something wrong.’ And the perpetrators are saying, ‘Well, of course we tortured. Of course we executed. They told us we have to, so we did.’”

See the trailer for Wiese’s film below.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.


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