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Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Page: 96

Mr DANBY (8:50 PM) —Shin Dong-hyuk lived the first 23 years of his life in a North Korean political prison. In Washington Post of last December he described the horrible early life that he led and the fact that he is the sole escapee of this particular North Korean labour camp, eventually finding his way to South Korea. Now 26, Shin Dong-hyuk has been living in South Korea and is the author of a grimly extraordinary book called The Escape to the Outside World.

From the book we learn that Shin grew up in a prison camp because two of his father’s brothers had allegedly collaborated with South Korea during the Korean War and then fled to the south. His father was guilty because he was the brother of traitors. Shin was guilty because he was his father’s son. This is why North Korea is truly described as a Stalinist regime. Just as in the time of Stalin, entire classes of people are anticipated enemies of the state and are brutalised by the Kims despite the fact that they have committed no actual crime themselves.

Shin describes the ‘common and almost routine’ savagery of the camp: the rape of his cousin by prison guards and the beating to death of a young girl found with five grains of unauthorised wheat in her pocket. He once found three kernels of corn in a pile of cow dung, he writes. He picked them out, cleaned them off on his sleeve and ate them. ‘As miserable as it may seem, it was my lucky day,’ he said. Sounds almost like Alexander Solzhenitsyn describing the life of the ‘zeks’ in Ivan Denisovich.

One section of his book tells how Shin was held in a cell and tortured for seven months. The book gives terrible descriptions of guards stripping him, hanging him and stabbing him with metal hooks to force him to talk about a so-called family conspiracy to escape the camp. He knew nothing of such a plan. One day in 1996 the guards let him out of his cell and brought him to a public square to watch the execution of his mother. His brother was shot to death on the same day. Nine years later, Shin escaped. He was working in the camp’s garment factory with an older prisoner who had seen the outside world and wanted to see it again. When they were collecting wood in a mountainous corner of the camp in January 2005, the two men ran to an electrified barbed-wire fence. His friend got hung up and died on the fence. Shin stepped over his body and managed to get through.

Shin’s story could not be independently verified, but it has been vetted by leading human rights activists and members of defector organisations in Seoul. Human rights organisations estimate that 150,000 to 200,000 people are being held as I speak in North Korean labour camps. Although many of the camps can be seen on satellite images, North Korea denies their existence.

The life lived by the average free North Korean is hardly better than that of Shin. In 2006 Freedom House stated:

North Korea is a totalitarian dictatorship and one of the most restrictive countries in the world. Every aspect of social, political, and economic life is tightly controlled by the state. The regime denies North Koreans all basic rights, subjects tens of thousands of political prisoners to brutal conditions and maintains an isolationist foreign policy.

Poor economic management has resulted in the deaths of millions by starvation in the 1990s, as our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, one of the few western leaders to visit North Korea, has testified in this parliament.

Personal stories like Shin’s need to be told and, in hearing them, maybe the world will learn more about the human rights of North Koreans. In cooperation with a South Korean organisation—the Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights—I have been working with a group of concerned Australians to organise a conference which will give voice to such stories. The conference is the Ninth International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees and is to be held in Melbourne on 20 and 21 March. Together with the Australian Institute of International Affairs, we are going to be organising film screenings as well as music and art by North Korean refugees, who will give some human colour to what is a medium sized platform where experts, politicians, NGO activists, aid donors and business leaders can exchange information and opinions about one of the most challenging topics regarding human rights above the 38th parallel. The conference to be held at the Grand Hyatt and at the Australian Institute for International affairs will be opened by our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith.

Along with a large contingent of South Koreans and North Korean refugees there will be numerous other international academics, NGO leaders and political leaders. Prominent guests will include Carl Gershman of the National Endowment for Democracy; Kjell Magne Bondevik, former Norwegian Prime Minister; and Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK. Members of parliaments from Europe, Asia and North America are expected to attend. I would like to invite all members of this parliament, especially those who are members of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, to attend this very worthwhile conference. Of particular value will be a special roundtable discussion of international and domestic parliamentarians.

The world must know Shin’s story and the stories of other North Koreans who are suffering as he did under the North Korean regime. (Time expired)