North Korean prisoner escaped after 23 brutal years

Born in a prison camp, Shin Dong-hyuk describes how three generations of a family are incarcerated if one family member is considered disloyal

The following is a script from "Three Generations of Punishment" which aired on Dec. 2, 2012 and was rebroadcast May 19, 2013. Anderson Cooper is the correspondent. Andy Court, producer.

North Korea's young dictator Kim Jong Un has gotten a lot of attention lately for testing nuclear weapons and long range missiles, and threatening to attack the United States if provoked.

Tonight, we're going to focus on something North Korea's leader doesn't want the world to see: a place so brutal and horrific it's hard to believe it actually exists. It is, by all accounts, a modern-day concentration camp, a secret prison hidden in the mountains, 50 miles from North Korea's capital, Pyongyang. It's called Camp 14, and according to human rights groups, it's part of the largest network of political prisons in the world today. Some 150,000 people are believed to be doing hard labor on the brink of starvation in these hidden gulags. But it's not just those who have been accused of political crimes, it's their entire families -- grandparents, parents, and children -- a practice called "three generations of punishment."

Very little was known about Camp 14 until a young man showed up in South Korea with an extraordinary tale to tell. His name is Shin Dong-hyuk and, as we first reported in December, he said he had not only escaped from Camp 14, but he was born there. He's believed to be the only person born and raised in the camps who's ever escaped and lived to tell about it.

Anderson Cooper: Did anybody ever explain to you why you were in a camp?

Shin Dong-hyuk: No. Never. 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.

Anderson Cooper: Did you know America existed?

Shin Dong-hyuk: Not at all.

Anderson Cooper: Did you know that the world was round?

Shin Dong-hyuk: I had no idea if it was round or square.

Camp 14 was all that Shin Dong-hyuk: says he knew for the first 23 years of his life. These satellite images are the only glimpse outsiders have ever gotten of the place. Fifteen thousand people are believed to be imprisoned here -- forced to live and work in this bleak collection of houses, factories, fields, and mines, surrounded by an electrified fence.

Anderson Cooper: Growing up, did you ever think about escaping?

Shin Dong-hyuk: That never crossed my mind.

Anderson Cooper: It never crossed your mind?

Shin Dong-hyuk: No. Never. What I thought was that the society outside the camp would be similar to that inside the camp.

Anderson Cooper: You thought everybody lived in a prison camp like this?

Shin Dong-hyuk: Yes.

Shin told us that this is the house where he was born. His mother and father were prisoners whose marriage, if you could call it that, was arranged by the guards as a reward for hard work.

Anderson Cooper: Did they live together? Did they see each other every day?

Shin Dong-hyuk: No. You can't live together. My mother and my father were separated and only when they worked hard could they be together.

Anderson Cooper: Did they love each other?

Shin Dong-hyuk: I don't know. In my eyes we were not a family. We were just prisoners.

Anderson Cooper: How do you mean?

Shin Dong-hyuk: You wear what you're given, you eat what you're given, and you only do what you're told to do. So there is nothing that the parents can do for you and there's nothing that the children can do for their parents.

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