I Thought I was Writing a Fantasy: Shocking Parallels between Dark Innocence and North Korean Reality
It breaks my heart to discover that the story I wrote (Dark Innocence) about a protagonist being born in such a terrible place that he knows only evil, obedience, and suffering, is actually happening to prisoners in North Korea now. Shin Dong-hyuk, now a human rights activist in South Korea, was born and raised in a North Korean prison camp (“total control zone”), where three generations of a family are imprisoned for life for the supposed crimes of the grandparent, and used as slave labor, starved, and tortured or killed for the least infraction.
Shin was literally bred and born to be one of these prisoners, the child of two prisoners given marital rights a few times a year for good behavior. (My protagonist, Kyr, was similarly bred and born to be the slave of an evil sorcerer-king.) Shin was hungry all the time, and saw his mother and brother as competitors for the scarce food. He saw violence, torture and murder, whether by execution or starvation, daily. He was also subjected to violence, degradation and torture himself. Obeying the rules of the prison, he turned his mother and brother in for trying to escape, and was rewarded by being tortured. He felt nothing when his mother and brother were executed except that they were getting what they deserved for breaking the rules. (In my story, Kyr has buried all feelings deep in inner ice, and coldly tortures and kills at his Master’s command.)
Shin managed to escape in 2005, after learning from another prisoner that, in the outside world, you could eat things like chicken and have as much food as you liked. That is what freedom meant to him then. (See the Wikipedia article on him, or the biography by Blaine Harden, Escape from Camp 14, for details of his escape and life since his escape.)
In the recent interview on 60 Minutes, Shin said: “when I see videos of the holocaust, I am moved to tears. I think I am still evolving – from an animal to a human.” He wishes he could apologize to his mother and brother, and is working to end those North Korean prison camps. He clearly has developed some compassion and empathy, though he also said that he still doesn’t know what love is.
In my novel, Kyr slowly and painfully learns what kindness, friendship and love are. Learning of these humane qualities, he is overcome with remorse and seeks to do penance. His penance turns out to be worse than he can imagine: he must face all his crimes, and all that he suffered as a slave. With much help, he is healed and becomes a kind, loving man. Ultimately, he decides his atonement will be to try to help his slave-brothers receive the kind of help he has, so they too can heal from the terrible abuse they suffered and inflicted as slaves.
The parallels between Shin’s story and Kyr’s dismay and sadden me. I had thought I was writing a metaphorical story about the struggle of the human soul to cope with this mad world of ours. Now it turns out my fantasy story is closer to real life than I would like.
Yet both Shin’s and Kyr’s stories reveal the amazing capacity that we humans have for recovery and healing from the worst abuse, as I saw in my work as a psychotherapist. Some readers of Dark Innocence have said that reading this story has contributed to their own healing. One even found she could finally forgive a man who accidentally hit her with his car, causing grave injury.
I pray for the day when those North Korean camps, and any place similar, are closed down, and no one has to suffer brutality or slavery of any kind. I hope my book may contribute to that day in some small way.