A Forgotten Declaration of Humanity

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Monday, December 22, 2008

A Forgotten Declaration of Humanity


December 22, 2008

When Shin Dong-hyuk found three kernels of corn in a pile of cow dung, he quickly fished them out, wiped them clean, and ate them. “As miserable as it may seem,” writes Shin, “that was my lucky day.”

Shin eventually escaped from Camp No. 14, a North Korean prison camp for political prisoners. The Washington Post published its article about him on December 11, 2008, one day after the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a milestone that received scant coverage.

The contrast between Shin’s story of “the ‘common and routine’ savagery of the camp” and the high ideals of the Universal Declaration could not be more jolting.

According to the Post, Shin, who now lives in South Korea, appears to be the only person ever to escape from Camp 14, a camp from which no one is ever released. He was one of the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people imprisoned in the North Korean camps, many because of their Christian faith.

Shin was born in the camp, the fruit of its inhumanity. His mother was the sexual prize given to his father for his good work as a mechanic. In the camp beatings, torture, and executions are commonplace. 

Shin bears the literal scars.

There are burn scars on his back and left arm from where he was tortured by fire at age 14, when he was unable to explain why his soon-to-be-hanged mother had tried to escape. The middle finger of his right hand is cut off at the first knuckle, punishment for accidentally dropping a sewing machine in the garment factory at his camp.

Just before his torture, suspended naked over an open charcoal fire, Shin discovered why he was in Camp 14: 

His torturers… surprised him by telling him, for the first time, why he and his family were in the camp. Two of his father's brothers had collaborated with South Korea during the Korean War and then fled to the South, the guards told him. His father was guilty because he was the brother of traitors. Shin was guilty because he was his father’s son.

Guilt by association is policy in North Korea. David Hawk of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea writes in The Hidden Gulag:

Former prisoners and guards trace this practice to a 1972 statement by “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung: “Factionalists or enemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations.”

Ahn Myeong Cheol, who worked as a driver and guard at four camps testified, “An instruction drilled into every guard’s head is: Don’t treat them like humans.” Hawk notes that prisoners are repeatedly “told that they were not human beings but dogs and pigs.” Dogs and pigs, it should be pointed out, have no human rights.

The world hoped to end this dehumanization and brutality sixty years ago with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Joseph Loconte writing about the Declaration in the Weekly Standard, quotes Eleanor Roosevelt, who headed the UN Human Rights Commission:

We must not be deluded by the efforts of the forces of reaction to prostitute the great words of our free tradition and thereby to confuse the struggle…. Democracy, freedom, human rights have come to have a definite meaning to the people of the world, which we must not allow to so change that they are made synonymous with suppression and dictatorship.

Loconte argues that her worst fears have been realized. The UN Human Rights Council’s refusal to deal with North Korea is only one example. Loconte writes:

The problem is not simply that human rights have become grossly politicized. The problem is that rights have been profoundly secularized—and severed from their deepest moral foundation, the concept of man as the imago Dei, the image of God. … When human rights are no longer considered the gift of nature and nature’s God, human dignity is made more vulnerable to assault.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Wonderful! But it neither defines “human” nor provides reasons for the truths it asserts. We are simply to agree to confer human dignity and human rights on each other—or not. There is no transcendent imperative for treating humans humanely rather than redefining “human” to exclude the designated “dogs and pigs.” 

Loconte concludes:

Sixty years ago, when the death camps still cast a shadow over Europe, world leaders were more sober about the great threats to human freedom. They proclaimed that “contempt for human rights” had produced acts of barbarism that “have outraged the conscience of mankind.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, indeed, the United Nations itself, were a response to those acts. The bitter irony is that another form of contempt for human dignity has appeared—and found safe harbor in the multicultural halls of New York and Geneva.

And it continues to find expression in the death camps that cast a shadow over North Korea today.


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