Born an inmate in a North Korean prison camp, Shin Dong Hyuk had no chance of ever being released. But since his escape at the age of 24, he has been telling the world of the plight of tens of thousands of prisoners.
Conversations with Shin Dong Hyuk (main picture) are often drawn out. He weighs his answers and moves his head as he ponders the appropriate response to get the depth of his feelings across. Or maybe it is that the question has taken him back to his life before he escaped from Camp 14, one of the most notorious in all of North Korea's gulag system.
As well as the memories - of public executions, of having a finger cut off for dropping a sewing machine, of constant hunger, of desperation - Shin still bears the physical scars of 24 years of being treated as a "sub-human" by his guards.
His arms bow unnaturally when he holds them out in front of him, a legacy of being bound and assaulted by guards. His back was badly burned when he was held down over a fire for another minor "infraction."
Evolving into a 'human'
In his biography, titled "Escape from Camp 14: One man's remarkable odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West," Shin wrote that he felt he had been evolving from an animal into a human being ever since he reached safety in South Korea.
Shin: 'I think that comparing the situation of political prisoners in North korea with animals is appropriate'
"I think that comparing the situation of political prisoners with animals is appropriate," he said in an interview in Tokyo on Monday, January 27. "The animals that live in the camps are treated better than the prisoners. The rats can eat what they want, they can always find a meal and they can come and go whenever they want. Political prisoners cannot eat what they want, they cannot go where they want, they are constantly being beaten."
Despite winning his liberty, Shin says he still has problems putting his past entirely behind him. Born in November 1983 as the child of two prisoners who were forced to marry, on the orders of the camp warden, Shin was forced to work at the age of 6 and sent to his first coal mine at 10, loading coal into ore cars and then pushing them uphill to a collecting area.
He tells of regular beatings, of the cold, of the hunger and torture. Completely desensitized to the concept of family, he reported his mother and brother to the camp authorities when he learned they were going to escape. Shin then attended their public execution with his father.
"I had no idea of the situation outside North Korea, actually outside the electric fence, so I did not escape with the intention of finding 'freedom'," he said. It was only after meeting an inmate who had traveled outside the country that Shin's interest in how other people lived, what they ate, what they wore was piqued.
'I made it, he didn't'
"When I was about to escape, all that I had in my mind was that if I could only have a proper meal, I wouldn't mind if they caught and executed me," he said.
Shin's partner in the escape died when he touched the electrified fence, so he used his body to climb to freedom. "I made it; he didn't," is the matter-of-fact explanation of a man who had witnessed such suffering for decades.
After escaping, Shin stole an old military uniform and made his way to the Chinese border and managed to get across the Tumen River into China, where he worked as a laborer for a year. Finally able to reach Shanghai, he sought sanctuary at the South Korean consulate and was able to travel on to Seoul.
Since then, Shin has devoted his time to telling the rest of the world about the atrocities being meted out on the people of North Korea by its brutal regime.
The former inmate is in Japan to meet human rights groups and other activists, including the families of Japanese nationals who were abducted by North Korean agents. He is also promoting a documentary about his experiences as a political prisoner, titled "Camp 14 - Total Control Zone."
'Moved to tears'
Shin testified last year before the United Nations commission set up to look into the human rights situation in North Korea. Chairman Michael Kirby later said he had been "moved to tears" by some of the testimony about the 200,000 people believed to be held in the North's gulags.
The commission is due to release a report on its findings in March, although Shin is not optimistic about the impact it will have.
"Unfortunately, the UN cannot do very much," says Shin, who is still the only person born in a North Korean labor camp to escape. "The horrible state that is North Korea does not take the UN seriously and history shows us that the organization has not been able to do anything to solve the problem."
And despite his concern, he concedes that there are few other avenues open to the international community to deal with the regime in Pyongyang."Although it is very late and many opportunities have been missed, I still believe that the human rights committee and the countries involved should take a strong stance.
"I do not know what sort of actions they might take - perhaps economic sanctions - but the UN is a big organization and should do something about it," he said.