"Am I Human?" : The Case of Shin Dong-Hyuk / by Honza Cervenka

Implications of Shin Dong-Hyuk’s Life for Zimbardo and Fromm


The concept of humanity has occupied thinkers across disciplines for millennia and there are endless philosophical, moral and psychological implications to each definition. In this essay I will explore Erich Fromm’s framework that is constructed on the premise that human beings are governed simultaneously by their instincts and their character. Fromm, together with Philip Zimbardo, will provide distinct tools in the analysis of North Korean Political Prison Camps, which have long been the primary tool of oppression for the totalitarian regime in North Korea. Although the government denies their existence, they are common knowledge among North Koreans. There are believed to be 5–6 camps in operation today with anywhere between 100,000 to 200,000 prisoners, who are sentenced to a life of brutally hard labor, well outside the faintest notion of Human Rights.

The extraordinary life of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who was born in Camp 14, “Kaechon,” serves as a case study in this essay. While both theorists shed valuable light on Shin’s story, the purpose of this case study is to test their fundamental assumptions. None of them pass the test and the case study thus reveals significant shortcomings of both theories. My argument will be structured in five principal sections: I first introduce both theorists and their frameworks. Second, I analyze the environment of the camps; followed by, third, an analysis of the case study on Shin Dong-Hyuk. The fourth section of the essay evaluates the theories and offer implications for further research.

Note on Sources

Although various committees around the world concern themselves with the PPCs, none of their researchers have visited the camps due to the isolationist nature of North Korea. This essay utilizes two of such reports: One published by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, based in Washington, DC, and one by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, based in Seoul. They both rely heavily on aggregated testimonies; the latter interviewed over 1,500 former prisoners and eyewitnesses who managed to defect the camps and flee the country.1 The nature of the reports is prone to factual limitations and this essay is bound to replicate them. Further, the information about Shin Dong-Hyuk’s life comes from two sources: His biography written by Blaine Harden, an American journalist, and a documentary shot about him by director Marc Wiese, a German filmmaker. Although both based their work on extensive interviews with Shin, the information is ultimately presented through western eyes, thus posing a separate list of limitations. This essay will inherently perpetuate whatever personal biases Harden and Wiese had when producing the sources.

Presentation of Theories

The two theorists chosen for this paper both analyze destructive and evil acts of humans. Yet they both use different tools: Erich Fromm is primarily a psychoanalyst, who is concerned with the individual, her character traits and desires and the often-malicious means of satisfying them. On the other hand, Philip Zimbardo, a social psychologist, choses to focus on the power of situations to induce evil in us; he uses a “three-part analysis of human action by trying to understand what individual actors bring into any setting, what situational forces bring out of those actors, and how system forces create and maintain situations.”2 Each theorist thus has a specific field of application: While Zimbardo is be instrumental in explaining the systematic nature of the PPCs, he falls short at explaining Shin’s personal trajectory. Fromm’s focus on the individual brings less insight into the operations of the PPCs, but is highly relevant in interpreting Shin’s life. This essay will ultimately illustrate how Shin’s story challenges major assumptions of both theorists.

Zimbardo’s Analytical Framework

Philip Zimbardo wrote his book “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil” in response to the uncovered scandal of prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison. He built the analysis on his past research, the famous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), where he amassed a dozen university students to be guards and another dozen to be prisoners in a mock prison. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks, but the unforeseen brutality of the guards forced Zimbardo to end the experiment abruptly after just six days.3

As a social psychologist, Zimbardo is interested in exploring outer determinants of our behavior: “I challenge the traditional focus on the individual’s inner nature, dispositions, personality traits, and character as the primary and often the sole target in understanding human failings. Instead, I argue that while most people are good most of the time, they can be readily seduced into engaging in what would normally qualify as ego-alien deeds, as antisocial, as destructive of others.”4 The following question steers his research: “To what extent can an individual’s actions be traced to factors outside the actor, to situational variables and environmental processes unique to a given setting?”5 His approach is thus suitable to explain the actions of perpetrators that were governed by the system of the PPCs.

The hierarchy of Person—Situation—System is at the center of Zimbardo’s theory; it is defined as follows:

The person is an actor on the stage of life whose behavioral freedom is informed by his or her makeup—genetic, biological, physical, and psychological. The Situation is the behavioral context that has the power, through its reward and normative functions, to give meaning and identity to the actor’s roles and status. The System consists of the agents and agencies whose ideology, values, and power create situations and dictate the roles and expectations for approved behaviors of actors within its spheres of influence.6

With this hierarchy in mind, Zimbardo is particularly interested in the “human transformations of good, ordinary people […] into perpetrators of evil in response to the corrosive influence of powerful situational forces.”7 Specifically, he analyzes the situational forces that push them towards being evil, which he defines as “intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others—or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on [one’s] behalf.”8 Zimbardo assumes that “most people, most of the time, are moral creatures,”9 but offers no definition of morality beyond the presumably universal distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ deeds. He further assumes that the actors in his scenarios originally enjoyed a period of freedom, a phase where they had a ‘normal life’ in the Western society. He envisions a scenario of good—bad(—good) in his experiments: Normal people (good) are in an abnormal situation (bad) and behave a certain way; if removed from the abnormal situation and reinstated back into their normal environment, they turn good again. These assumptions pose little obstacle in analyzing the general Situation at the PPCs, which governs the guards and the prisoners who had lived in the general population of North Korea prior to the camp. They will, however, be disputed by the ensuing analysis of Shin Dong-Hyuk’s life.

Fromm’s Analytical Framework

Erich Fromm’s field of expertise is psychoanalysis, but when he started writing “The Anatomy of Destructiveness” in the late 1960s, it became apparent to him that he needed to broaden his analytical lens in order to do the topic justice.10 His research thus expanded to include fields such as “neurophysiology, animal psychology, paleontology, and anthropology,”11 although psychoanalysis remains the principal framework of this opus. The motivation behind his research was the explanation of some of the great evildoers of the 20th century: Joseph Stalin, Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Hitler, to whom he devoted separate case studies.

According to Fromm, humans are controlled by two distinct vitalities: The first are organic drives (also referred to as instincts), which respond to our physiological needs such as the “search for food, […] defensive aggressiveness (or flight), and […] sexual desires.”12 The second are character-rooted passions that form man’s second nature13 and operate alongside the organic drives. Fromm establishes a continuum with instincts on one end and character as the other, which serves as a tool to explain the evolutionary process of the “ever-decreasing determination of behavior by instincts.”14 He argues that the lowest animals have the highest determination by instincts, primates less so, and apes even less. “[M]an can be defined as the primate that emerged at the point of evolution where instinctive determination had reached a minimum and the development of the brain a maximum.”15 Our increased determination by character-rooted passions is thus the precise difference between our race and other species, which are governed solely by instincts.

Fromm spends little time discussing the specific types of organic drives; after all, he is interested in exploring the character-rooted passions more. He casually lists the following components of organic drives: “food, fight, flight, sexuality,”16 but offers no specific examination of them, perhaps because he assumes them to be common knowledge. I do not seek to question Fromm’s list in my analysis. I choose to focus on food in this essay and, to a lesser extent, on fight and flight. Sexuality is ignored in my study; although not irrelevant, it falls outside the scope of this paper.

Fromm identifies five character-rooted passions that coexist with the palette of physiological needs. A frame of orientation and devotion refers to the need of an all-encompassing ideology to explain the world around him. Without this ‘map’ he feels lost and confused. Whether the totality is right or wrong matters only little, it always serves a psychological function. Rootedness is the desire to feel safe and secure: According to Fromm, we seek to find the same security that we had in our mother’s wombs before our birth.17 Unity is the drive to feel as one within oneself and “with the natural and human world outside.”18 Effectiveness forces humans to look for a way of having an effect, to make a dent in the society. We desire to accomplish great strides, to be potent and active in our lives: “The principle can be formulated thus: I am, because I effect.”19 Finally, excitation and stimulation* requires us to constantly nurture our nervous system with activating stimuli that actively interest us and excite us to learn more.20

Physiological needs are satisfied in a straightforward fashion—one must eat in order not to feel hungry, defend oneself or flee in case of imminent danger, and find a sexual partner in order to satiate one’s sexual needs. For humans, the fulfillment of character-rooted passions is more complicated. We may choose between life-furthering syndrome, which includes “love, solidarity, justice and reason;”21 and life-thwarting syndrome, which is characterized by “sadomasochism, destructiveness, greed, narcissism, [and] incestuousness.”22 Each person is a mixture of the two syndromes; ultimately, “what matters for the behavior of the person and the possibility of change is precisely the respective strength of each syndrome.”23 Fromm’s analysis focuses on what factors bring out which syndrome.

Further, Fromm draws distinction between benign (defensive) and malignant aggressions, which are defined as such: Benign aggression is “biologically adaptive; [our brains are] phylogenetically programmed to mobile attack or flight impulses when vitals interests […] are threatened.”24 Malignant aggression, on the other hand, is “driven by impulses to kill and to torture, and [a human] feels lust in doing so; he is the only animal that can be a killer and destroyer of his own species without any rational gain […]. [Malignant aggression] is biologically nonadaptive.”25 Benign aggression can be triggered both by instincts and character-rooted passions,26 but only when there is an outside threat present. Malignant aggression is triggered solely by the character-rooted passions27 and without an apparent existential threat. Both can be quite destructive and the distinguishing factor is the presence or absence of an outside threat.

On a more fundamental level, humans are also required to achieve a certain balance between character-rooted passions and instincts:

Man must satisfy his bodily needs in order to survive, and his instincts motivate him to act in favor of his survival. If his instincts determined most of his behavior, he would have no special problems in living and would be “a contended cow” provided he had ample food.28

Finally, Fromm extends a crucial assumption:

But for man the satisfaction of his organic drives alone does not make him happy, nor does it guarantee his sanity. Nor is his problem that of first satisfying his physical needs and then, as a kind of luxury, developing his character-rooted passions. The latter are present from the very beginning of his existence, and often have even greater strength than his organic drives.29

It is precisely this simultaneity of fulfillment of physical needs and character-rooted passions that is be the centerpiece of this essay as we find Shin’s life to contradict this assumption.

The Environment: Analysis of North Korean Political Prison Camps

I structure this section of the essay in two parts: The first provides background information about the history of the PPCs, reasons for imprisonment and statistics that relate to the population at the camps. The second section juxtaposes a number of characteristics of the environment in the PPCs with our theorists; Zimbardo in particular.

History, Reasons for Imprisonment and Statistics

Political Prison Camps were first built in North Korea in the 1950s for the purpose of detaining any opposition to Kim Il-sung’s dictatorship. The party constructed the camps to be self-sufficient and self-reliant and extended them minimal support. By the same token, the PPCs were not originally expected to contribute to the national economy. This marks a crucial difference between the North Korean PPCs and Soviet gulags that were established primarily in order to aid state construction programs.30 However, as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it ceased to support North Korea economically, which disturbed the fragile balance of production/consumption in the country and triggered a string of famines and other hardships. In an effort to increase production in the country, the North Korean government adapted the PPCs to the dire economic satiation and began to utilize the them as producers for the national economy as well. Nevertheless, the newly assumed economic role remains subordinate to the camps’ original political role.

The North Korean government vehemently denies the existence of the camps to the present day, even with an impending UN investigation.31 However, Human Rights Watch claim that "[t]here is sufficient evidence outside of North Korea about what is happening inside, so the government can’t keep a lid on it any more.”32 Since the advent of satellite imagery the world has seen detailed birds-eye images of the camps. The remaining information that is available about the camps comes from former guards and prisoners who managed to escape from the camps and the country. One of the first accounts of the camps in English came from Ali Lamada and Jacques Sedillot, who had been recruited by the North Korean government in the 1960s to translate the collected works of Kim Il-sung into Spanish and French, respectively.33 Except for their nationalities, their stories from the camps are remarkably similar to the North Koreans who escape in the present day.

Historically, at least 15 camps operated in North Korea and at least five still active today; the rest have either merged or closed.34 It is impossible to calculate the total number of prisoners in the five existing camps today given the lack of official statistics, but most estimates place the number of prisoners currently detained between
100,000 and 200,000, possibly even more. 35

The reasons for imprisonment warrant serious attention. A survey of 1,100 former prisoners conducted by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) shows that 400 of them were imprisoned for political reasons, 297 for guilt-by-association and 269 for unknown reasons. Guilt-by-association refers to the practice of arresting members of the extended family of a wrongdoer for up to three generations, although they themselves are not guilty of the crime. In fact, some prisoners just “vaguely [believe] that their grandparents, their parents or someone, a relative, may have done something wrong to bring them there.”36 Actual criminal charges can range anywhere from forgetting to preface the name of the Supreme Leader with ‘comrade,’37 to attempting an escape from the country. Virtually no prisoner receives a fair trial prior to her imprisonment. Some undergo a skewed investigation where they are often tortured extensively, which forces many to resort to false confessions in hopes to end the torture it as soon as possible.38

The majority of any prisoner’s day is spent working on one of the numerous facilities in the camps, which include farms, factories, construction projects, ore mines and more. Children are not exempt from the hard labor and are often sent to work in the coal mine at the age of ten. In groups of six they are responsible for lugging a two-ton ore car up the hill four times a day.39 Prisoners slave for twelve or more hours a day, seven days a week with only a few days’ rest and three annual holidays: New Year’s Day and the birthdays of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.40 Prisoners are grouped together to form work units that are collectively responsible for meeting production quotas, which coerces every member of the group to closely monitor others. Should they fall short of the requirement, the whole group is punished collectively. Regardless of their performance, each prisoner is required to attend nightly sessions of mutual work criticism, which is considered to be the principal social activity for the prisoners. One of them stated: “After dinner, I went to the discipline session between 9 and 10. It started with an instructor who basically announced the beginning of the session. Everyone in the group stood up to make a report about other prisoners. Then the officer and prisoners begin to beat the accused prisoners.” The sessions encourage a pervasive environment of snitching and spying on others.

Theoretical Interpretation

Of the two theorists available, Zimbardo best explains the systematic nature of the PPCs since there is no question that the environment of the PPCs is major determinant in the prisoners’ lives. As already noted, Zimbardo focuses on the exploration of how environments and Systems affect Situations and People’s actions and thus has direct applicability to this scenario. Fromm’s specialty is the study of an individual. Although some of his concepts are relevant here, he will be the primary theorist in the next section of the essay. This part of the essay is organized in three parts: I first draw distinctions between victims and perpetrators in the PPCs; second, I analyze the role that dehumanization plays in the camps; and finally, I turn my focus to the obedience of authority.

Identification of Perpetrators

Before truly embarking on a theoretical interpretation, the question of who the perpetrators in the scenario are must be answered first. The only individuals who can be safely regarded as perpetrators are the Kim family and the government, who created the PPCs as a tool for oppression of their own people; in Zimbardo’s ecosystem, they represent the System. Although one might label the guards as perpetrators and a party in the System, such classification is hasty since the guards did not necessarily assume their roles voluntarily. It was not unusual for the government to imprison former high-ranking officials who fell out of favor; an ordinary guard, who refused the assignment would with little doubt find himself among the prisoners too. Therefore, the guards have a dual classification: They are victims of the nation-wide oppression of the Party, but also major perpetrators within the camps. One arrives at a similar conundrum when classifying the prisoners. They are primarily victims; however, as the ongoing analysis will show, they commit violent acts against each other as well. Therefore, prisoners dual classification is as follows: They are victims of both the government’s and guards’ oppression, but also occasional perpetrators within the camps.


One of the pervasive traits of the guards’ treatment of prisoners in the PPCs is dehumanization, which has a strong parallel in Zimbardo’s scholarship. There is no notion of civil or human rights in the PPCs and inmates are treated with no dignity or humanity. One of the former guards stated that “[a]fter being deported to a labour camp, [the prisoners are] not treated as human beings anymore, [they are] treated like animals. We, the guards, screamed at them: ‘You son of a bitch, if you were a pig we could at least eat you!’”41 Another guard said they “were taught not to think of [the prisoners] as human beings.”42 Zimbardo found that dehumanization played an important role in his experiments as well. “Dehumanization is one of the central processes in the transformation of ordinary, normal people into indifferent or even wanton perpetrators of evil.”43 Furthermore, “[b]y identifying certain individuals or groups as being outside the sphere of humanity, dehumanizing agents suspend the morality that might typically govern reasoned actions toward their fellows.”44 It is thus to no surprise that guards are trained to treat the prisoners inhumanely as it removes moral rules that may otherwise have forbidden them from handling prisoners with such brutality.

However, there is a further layer of dehumanization in the camps. Customarily, prisoners are forbidden from having relations among themselves and no physical and sexual contact is allowed under the punishment of death.45 Some camps have an exception to the rule, where at times the guards marry a man and a wife in a “reward marriage” for their hard work. This new relationship is forced upon the spouses regardless of whether they desire to be married or not. The children that are born from such marriages go to a segregated school where they learn to read, write, add and subtract. They learn nothing of the country of North Korea, its leadership or its juche ideology; they only have a vague idea of who the Great Leader and Dear Leader are.46 This is rather pragmatic: The children, as their parents, are sentenced to life in the camps. The purpose of education is not to educate them per se, it is to give them only the absolutely necessary skills so that they can perform their work duties at the camps. They are conditioned to believe that their only purpose in life is to “wash away the sins of [their] mothers and fathers [and to] work hard.”47 Therefore, these “reward children” are dehumanized beyond the level of an animal, they are turned into human machines.

Zimbardo does not realize this additional layer of dehumanization is possible; Fromm, on the other hand, offers certain insight in his chapter titled “The Connection Between Necrophilia and the Worship of Technique,”48 where he discusses the various permutations of the necrophilous character.49 He identifies a new type of a necrophiliac, who is no longer interested in corpses, but instead he “turns his interest away from life, persons, nature, [and] ideas”50 to, ultimately, creating robots “as the greatest achievements of his technical mind.”51 The children born at the camp are, of course, not actual robots, but fulfill an alarmingly similar function. The etymology of the word ‘robot’ is worthy to note here: It is of Czech origin and stems from the word robota,52 which translates as corvée, i.e. forced labor, which is exactly what the children are required to do.

Dehumanization is thus present in the camps in two permutations: The first is the treatment of prisoners as equal to animals, which enables the guards to set their moral principles aside and treat the prisoners with extreme brutality. The second type of dehumanization treats prisoners more subhuman yet, at the level equivalent to that of a human machine.

Obedience to Authority

Zimbardo also engages a powerful network of analyzing the effects of authority on its subjects. He uses the famous Milgram experiment as the basis for his framework: the experiment aims to determine how susceptible people are towards blindly obeying authority, in this case by obeying orders to send electric shocks to victims every time they make a mistake in a memorization exercise.53 Zimbardo drew a number of lessons from the experiment and for the purposes of this analysis I will discuss the following ones: high exit costs, ideology, and diffusion of responsibility.54

The Milgram experiment showed that high exit costs are one of the reasons why the subjects administered brutal shocks to their victims. The exit costs in that case were represented by the experimenter’s presence and his “insist[ance] on behavioral compliance”55 through multiple conversations with the distressed subjects. Similarly, a former guard in the PPCs stated: “[t]he instructors told us not to show pity. They said, ‘If you do, you will become a prisoner.’”56 Knowing first-hand what sort of life prisoners in the camps lead represented a salient incentive to obey orders.

Ideological framing also plays a crucial role in the formation of obedient subjects. In the Milgram experiment “this came in the form of providing an acceptable justification, or rationale, for engaging in the undesirable action, such as that science wants to help people improve their memory by judicious use of reward and punishment.”57 Zimbardo notes that governments often use ideology to justify acts against “threats to national security.”58 In the PPCs, a vast majority of prisoners were arrested for political crimes (which included guilt-by-association) and were thus seen as precisely that kind of a threat to the regime. Whether the threat was imagined, such as anybody arrested for not speaking of the Dear Leader as ‘comrade,’ or somewhat justified in the context of a dictatorship, such as a vocal opponent to the ruling party, the guards saw the prisoners as equal threats to national security that must be contained.

Finally, the diffusion of responsibility is also strongly at work in the camps. In the Milgram experiment, it manifested itself rather straightforwardly: “The [experimenter] said, when questioned by any [subject], that he would take responsibility for anything that happened to the ‘learner’”59 during the course of the experiment. This arrangement also lifted some of the moral imperatives that would normally not allow the subjects to inflict pain on the ‘learners.’ Diffusion of responsibility appears present in the guards, who carried out their actions knowing that they were ordered “from the top.” However, the guards had enough autonomy over the control of the camp to establish an additional layer to the phenomenon by turning themselves into the experimenters, the persons of authority: “If we didn’t want to get our hands dirty, we chose a group of inmates. I said: ‘You kill one of your group or I kill all of you.’ […] I just waited until one of the inmates in the group was beaten to death by his fellow inmates.”60 It is difficult to imagine the prisoners-killers in this scenario to feel any “moral lift” after killing the inmate, but the situation shows the same principle at work. Therefore, diffusion of responsibility has two layers at the PPCs: It enables the guards to simply follow orders from the government as well as create rules of their own and turn certain prisoners into their ad hoc executioners.

This section illustrated a fine capacity of Zimbardo to explain some of the key characteristics of the PPCs. While the analysis by no means exhausts all the details of the daily lives of prisoners at the camps, Zimbardo offered valuable insight into two primary aspects: dehumanization and obedience to authority.

The Individual: Case Study of Shin Dong-Hyuk

The following section is organized in two parts: I first offer background information on Shin’s life. Second, I turn to our theorists to explain it, drawing on Fromm’s scholarship in particular.

Background Information

Shin Dong-Hyuk61 is a product of the North Korean Prison Camps. He was born in 1982 in Camp 14, which is one of the Maximum Security Camps. Shin estimates it holds 50,000 prisoners, both offenders and their families. The camp is located in the South Pyongan province, just north of the country’s capital, Pyongyang;62 satellite images of the camp are available.63 Shin was born out of a reward marriage between his father, Shin Gyung Sub, and mother, Jan Hye Gyung; Shin also had a brother, He Geun, who was eight years his senior. Shin’s father was in the camp because two of his brothers defected the country;64 he was thus imprisoned on the guilt-by-association principle. The reason for the mother’s imprisonment is unknown. Shin lived with her in a “model village” part of the camp; they had their own room in a building that four families shared. The floors were concrete and windows were made of gray vinyl, but compared to the bunkhouses, where most prisoners lived, their living space was considered relatively luxurious: “Shin had a relatively comfortable life by the standards of other children in the camps.”65

The extraordinarily oppressive system at Camp 14 left its marks on Shin’s character and behavior. He became a snitch and an informant for the guards, who lectured children about “redemption through snitching.”66 He informed on his parents and they were expected to do the same.67 In 1996, when Shin was 14 years old, he overheard his mother and brother plan an escape. Shin’s instincts told him to report their plan to a guard as the rules required, but the guard took all credit for the information when he recounted it to his superiors. Thus, due to the guilt-by-association system, Shin was arrested the following morning and sent to a prison within the camp, where the guards tortured him severely for weeks. He was then transferred to a different cell with another inmate, who tended Shin’s wounds for weeks and saved his life; he asked to be called “Uncle.”

Shin was released from the prison six months after his arrest. As he was leaving the prison he met his father, who had been imprisoned at the same time without Shin’s knowledge. They were blindfolded and transported to the camp’s execution grounds and were pushed to the front row of the audience. Shin soon recognized his mother and brother, who were executed in front of his eyes. As he reflected on the scene later, he said: “I didn’t feel anything because for my whole life the concept of ‘family’ had been completely alien to me. I felt nothing when they were killed.”68 After the execution, the guards reinstated Shin to the camp. He worked on a ranch for a few years and then as a repairman in a textile factory.

In 2004 the guards ordered Shin to teach his craft to a new prisoner, Park Yong Chul. Park was no ordinary prisoner; he came from an elite family and studied abroad in East Germany as well as USSR.69 He was cautious of his relationship with Shin at first, but gradually warmed up to him. The two became friends and their growing friendship led them to plan their own escape from the camp. The opportune day was January 2, 2005, in the dead of winter. Dressed in just plain clothes, Park and Shin ran to the electrified barbed wire surrounding the camp. Park reached it first, but the current killed him on the spot. The weight of his body pushed some of the wires low enough for Shin to pass through. He accidentally touched a live wire in the process, which caused severe burns on his ankles and knees as the current travelled through his body.

Shin managed to escape, but he was alone, starving and injured. He managed to gradually make his way to China and then South Korea. He wrote a memoir in Korean in 2007, which attracted international attention. Shin was invited to come to the USA and has since been an active advocate for human rights in North Korea. He currently lives in Seoul.

Theoretical Interpretation

Zimbardo’s theory explained a number of phenomena in the previous section of the paper, but he is less relevant when explaining Shin’s life than Fromm. Although Zimbardo accounts for individual persons in his theory, he is clearly more focused on the functioning of the system. This section will be the domain of Erich Fromm who, although capable of tangentially commenting in the previous section, will be able to unleash its analytical gear full force when dealing with a specific person—Shin. The precise power of Shin’s story is that it poses a challenge to Fromm’s assumption of “simultaneous satisfaction” of organic drives and character-rooted passions. For the sake of analysis, I divide Shin’s life into three phases, which I study separately: The first part lasted from birth to the encounter with Uncle; second then continued until Shin started a life in South Korea; and the third lasts until the present day.

First phase of Shin’s Life

The first phase of Shin’s life is characterized by the perpetual search for food, which Fromm classifies as an organic drive. The prisoners in the camp live literally on the verge of death by starvation every day. In Camp 14 the daily food ration amounts to 700 grams of corn for adults with three bundles of salted cabbage.70 The perpetual hunger haunts prisoners daily. Thefts of food are among the most severe crimes in the camps and can result in severe beatings and sometimes death. Deprivation of food altogether is a common punishment for poor work performance. Virtually none of Shin’s actions were disconnected from the continuous need to fight off hunger, even at the cost of a major punishment. The relationship with his mother was not one based on love and care, but rather on food competition.71 He recalls that he often ate his mother’s lunch while she was at work, because he was too hungry. She beat him severely when she came back—“[s]ome of the beatings were as violent as those he later received from guards.”72 It is thus clear that Shin was primarily occupied by the satisfaction of his organic drives.

However, Fromm’s theory requires Shin—a human—to be governed by character-rooted passions instead. To the contrary, Shin mentions no experience that would suggest the presence of character-rooted passions in this phase of his life. He had no framework of orientation, he was not taught the Party’s ideology in our outside the school; his life equaled the work he did—a poor substitute to an all-answering creed. The only hint at the presence of character-rooted passions appears in a detail from when Shin reported the escape of his brother and mother to a guard: he requested more food and the position of a grade leader in school in exchange for the information.73 The bargaining for food is expected, but one might question the request for a higher social status as a sign for the desire to effect. However, Shin claims that his motivation was the prospect of less work and fewer beatings.74 He did not seek to improve his social status per se, he merely attempted to reduce the risk of death from the hard work or beatings. Based on the inhuman world he lived in, this request is better aligned with physical self-defense, one of the organic drives, than with the desire to effect. If labeled as an act of aggression, the bargaining would be labeled as benign since it occurred under an implied threat.

I therefore conclude that the first phase of Shin’s life was controlled solely by his organic needs. Contrary to Fromm’s theory, character-rooted passions are not present simultaneously.

Second Phase of Shin’s Life

I use similar analysis to explain he second phase of Shin’s life, where the balance between organic drives and character-rooted passions begins to change. This part of Shin’s life begins with the encounter with Uncle, who tended his wounds and told him stories of the outside world and the food in North Korea. Shin labels that period as his “first exposure to sustained kindness.”75 Shin was confused: He never trusted anybody, much less his mother, he only expected people to betray and hurt him. He said: “I had never felt before that humans beings (sic) could be social animals.”76 The Uncle saved his life; his kindness triggered a series of psychological changes in Shin.

Shin gradually abandoned his old ways as a snitch and an informer. During the first year at the factory, Shin found himself a witness to another repairman hitting one of the seamstresses in Shin’s group in the face. Shin had witnessed countless beatings in his life and always contended himself to be a passive observer, if not an active participant in the collective beatings. This time, however, to his astonishment as much as others’, Shin decided to defend the seamstress, grabbed a large wrench and attacked his fellow repairman. Their supervisor arrived at the scene shortly after, slapped Shin as a punishment and took his wrench. The “old” Shin would have had no reason to help the seamstress. An attack on a fellow repairman-prisoner promised him no benefit in an ongoing battle for food; on the contrary, Shin risked his life for the seamstress. His superior could have easily hit him with the wrench over his head rather than do with a mere slap. Although Shin did not understand the rational behind the action at the time, it suggests that his universe began to embrace reasoning beyond his organic drives: The “Seamstress Incident” represents a nucleus of character-rooted passions.

The character-rooted passions continue to gain prominence as Shin encounters Park. The guards originally ordered Shin to snitch on Park, his past and family, under the mask of a friend. However, the two became genuine friends and Shin decided not to inform on Park, thus abandoning the one means of survival that he knew. Shin’s biographer argues that was “perhaps the first free decision in his life.”77 It illustrates a drastic character transformation, one that seems diametrically opposed to Shin’s behavior in the first phase. This relationship changed Shin’s life forever: Park told him of the world both inside and outside of North Korea; Shin first learned of Pyongyang, China, and the world. Although he was still attracted by the stories about food, this time even more plenteous than in Uncle’s stories, he was also drawn to Park because of his composure. Park was at such a sharp contrast to other prisoners, who “behaved like a panicked animal at mealtimes.”78 Shin admired his humanity and dignity.

On one hand, the encounters with Uncle and Park expanded Shin’s world of character-rooted passions. The “Seamstress Incident” shows signs of the life-furthering syndromethat promotes justice, reason and solidarity. The same syndrome was at work when Shin decided to befriend Park and stop informing—perhaps to tend to the need for rootedness by finding a friend. Nonetheless, it is important to note that food remained scarce for Shin throughout this period. It was the basis for his escape as well: “The reason why I wanted to escape wasn’t freedom. […] Even if I were to be shot tomorrow because I was trying to escape, I at least wanted to eat a piece of chicken or cooked meat. Just once in my life.”79 Organic drives remain central to Shin’s thinking.

Therefore, while the second phase of Shin’s life shows continued dependence on organic drives, his character-rooted passions gained importance.

Third Phase of Shin’s Life

Unlike the supremacy of organic needs in the previous two phases of Shin’s life, character-rooted passions become the dominant drive in the final phase of Shin’s life. Although he has struggled with bill payments and other financial hardships common to many, his basic physiological meets are now met with ease. Food is no longer a scarcity; he need not fight for or worry about his safety as he used to in the camp. Shin said, “I escaped physically, […] I haven’t escaped psychologically,”80 but the more appropriate phrasing would be ‘I escaped the world of the physical and entered the world of the psychological.’

Shin finds the newly prominent character-rooted passions problematic to meet. He struggles to find a frame of orientation; religion is a foreign concept to him, he had never heard of God in the camp,81 and finds it difficult for his newly found Christian faith to explain the time line of his life.82 Rootednessis perhaps the most difficult passion to satisfy. From likens rootedness to the search for the safety we enjoyed in our mother’s wombs as fetuses—a search filled with much guilt and remorse for a man who watched his mother die because of him. Shin says he disgusts himself for what he has done to his family.83 The drive for unity serves similar challenges. He was embraced by a welcoming Korean family, but finds it difficult to attach himself to them, asking: “Why are you so nice to me? […] Don’t you know what I have done?”84 Shin remains suspicious of people’s motives like most other defectors from the camps.85

Indeed, the suddenly dominant character-rooted passions demand fulfillment. Shin struggles with his new needs and his mental health suffers intensely. Paranoia is common among defectors86 and Shin is not immune. Shortly after he settled in South Korea he began having nightmares where he saw “his mother hanged, Park’s body on the fence, and visualized the torture he believed his father was subjected to after his escape. […] He was all but paralyzed by guilt.”87 As his mental health worsened, he underwent a treatment at a psychiatric ward for two and half months.

However, two character-rooted passion seem to be an exception to the trend: effectiveness and excitation and stimulation. Both of them are being fulfilled by his efforts as a human rights advocate. After a period where he struggled to find his voice, Shin is now a vocal speaker on North Korean issues and has gathered significant attention at various international conferences and in the media. Recently, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay met with Shin to hear of his story first-hand.88 Although the meeting was not the sole reason for the recently announced UN investigation into the human rights abuses in North Korea, the meeting may have had a tangible impact. It is apparent that these efforts also provide Shin with many activating stimuli required by the drive for excitation and stimulation.

Therefore, the final phase of Shin’s life shows a reversal of sorts: The once dominant instincts were replaced by character-rooted passions. While some of them are more difficult to meet, others are fulfilled by his efforts as a human rights activist.

Evaluation of Theories and Implications for Further Research

Both Zimbardo and Fromm undoubtedly bring important insight into the nature of the PPCs in North Korea as well as Shin’s life. However, neither managed to account for Shin’s life entirely; his case is outside their analytical frameworks. This, of course, does not discredit the knowledge gained in the process of close analysis through the theories; it is not unusual for a case of this complexity to refer back onto its examiners. The purpose of this essay was, after all, as much to contextualize Shin’s life in the two theories as it was about exploring their limits.

Zimbardo is inherently disadvantaged against individual case studies given his focus on the functioning of the system. Moreover, Shin challenged two of Zimbardo’s principal assumptions: The universality of good—bad(—good) scenario and the absolutist view of morality. The former is clearly influenced by the fact that Shin was not born to an environment reminiscent to that of the guards and prisoners in Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, or the hometowns of the American soldiers in Abu Ghraib. To him the bad environment was not a temporary appointment, an episode of anomaly in an otherwise normal life; Camp 14 to Shin was the entire world, cosmos even—an absolute. The same finding informs the dent into Zimbardo’s notion of absolute morality. Throughout his analysis there is as an implied sense of a moral order governing the entire process; it labels people as angels or demons, and situations as “good” or “bad.” Zimbardo never defines the morality, much less challenges it. Yet Shin, who was born and grew up in a severely oppressive environment cannot possibly share the same notion moral framework as Zimbardo’s Western subjects.

Fromm’s theory is also fundamentally challenged by Shin’s life. The three phases of Shin’s life show a unique trajectory of transition between a life dominated strictly by organic drives to one much closer to the customary dominance of character-rooted passions. This development represents a serious dent in Fromm’s theory that denies the fact possibility of organic drives being satisfied first and character-rooted passionslater. You may recall that Fromm labeled such a scenario as a “luxury.”89 Despite his widely cast net that encompasses anthropology, animal psychology and other disciplines, he did not manage to envision a human raised in such dire circumstances. Fromm’s analytical gear leaves him with only unpleasant options for Shin’s classification: If he were to uphold his assumptions, he would have to resort to labeling Shin in the first phase of his life as non-human, an animal, since he only relied on his instincts to survive. The second phase would then have to represent some sort of an accelerated evolution until Shin reached the balance between instincts and character-rooted passions similar to humans. Such analysis is far-fetched and shows the desperate attachment of Fromm’s theory to that assumption.

Our two theorists are thus incapable of explaining Shin’s life fully. However, he is by no means an anomaly. The findings of this essay have a number of implications for further research and I shall conclude by briefly discussing three of them: The new generation of “reward children” in the camps, parallels with refugee camps and the role of starvation on human development. First, the PPCs have been in existence for over half a century and it is possible that the “original reward children” now have children of their own. There may be hundreds of other children, who are experiencing the exact same hardships that Shin did. The lesson’s drawn from this individual case study must thus be taken to the broader study of the whole generation of reward children at the camps, as well as their offsprings.

Second, Shin’s case study identified the importance that political structures have on our lives. There is an alarming number of people in refugee camps worldwide who live under similarly helpless conditions. Whereas the PPCs are set up with a clear purpose of exploitation and destruction and refugee camps are established with the desire to improve people’s lives, both suffer under their respective political structures, whose parallels warrant further study.

Finally, this essay identified the crucial role that starvation plays in the development of the human character. When partnered with an oppressive political structure, we see that starvation has the power of turning people into social predators and merciless competitors for food. Additional research is needed to explore the context of starvation under other circumstances. There are millions of people in the world living in famines that can benefit from similar research.

Ultimately, the power of this essay extends beyond the challenges it poses to the theories of Zimbardo and Fromm. The findings of this essay trigger the need for a substantial amount of further research, which will educate us about the complexities of life in some of the world’s must deprived regions. Ultimately, any knowledge we can gain into the human conditions of people like Shin Dong-Hyuk will empower us to provide them with informed support as they transition into more fortunate chapters of their lives.

  1. Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), Political Prison Camps in North Korea Today(Seoul, 2011), available at http://nkdb.org/bbs1/data/publication/Political_Prison_Camp_in_North_Korea_Today.pdf, 29–30.  ↩

  2. Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2007), viii.  ↩

  3. Ibid., 191.  ↩

  4. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, vii.  ↩

  5. Ibid., 8.  ↩

  6. Ibid., 445–446.  ↩

  7. Ibid., vii.  ↩

  8. Ibid., 5.  ↩

  9. Ibid., 17.  ↩

  10. Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness(New York: H. Holt, 1992), 15.  ↩

  11. Ibid.  ↩

  12. Ibid., 295.  ↩

  13. Ibid., 26.  ↩

  14. Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 251.  ↩

  15. Ibid., 252.  ↩

  16. Ibid., 97.  ↩

  17. Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 261.  ↩

  18. Ibid., 262.  ↩

  19. Ibid., 264.  ↩

  20. For full definitions of the various character-rooted passions see Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness,259–272.  ↩

  21. Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 285.  ↩

  22. Ibid., 285.  ↩

  23. Ibid., 285.  ↩

  24. Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness,221.  ↩

  25. Ibid., 246.  ↩

  26. Ibid., 223–224.  ↩

  27. Ibid., 246.  ↩

  28. Ibid., 297.  ↩

  29. Ibid., 297.  ↩

  30. NKDB, Political Prison Camps in North Korea Today, 19.  ↩

  31. Stephanie Nebehay, “U.N. names team to investigate torture, camps in North Korea,” Reuters, May 7, 2013, accessed May 7, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/07/us-korea-north-rights-idUSBRE9460FI20130507.  ↩

  32. Nebehay, “U.N. names team to investigate torture, camps in North Korea,”  ↩

  33. David Hawk, The Hidden Gulag: The Lives and Voices of “Those Who Are Sent to he Mountains”(Washington, DC: U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012), available at http://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/HRNK_HiddenGulag2_Web_5–18.pdf, 42.  ↩

  34. NKDB, Political Prison Camps in North Korea Today, 62.  ↩

  35. Ibid., 70–72.  ↩

  36. NKDB, Political Prison Camps in North Korea Today, 129.  ↩

  37. Shin Dong-Hyuk, “Camp 14: Total Control Zone,” documentary, directed by Marc Wiese (Engstfeld Film GmbH: 2012), available at http://movies.netflix.com/WiPlayer?movieid=70264533&trkid=2722743.  ↩

  38. NKDB, Political Prison Camps in North Korea Today, 144.  ↩

  39. Blaine Harden, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West (New York: Viking, 2012), 30.  ↩

  40. Hawk, The Hidden Gulag, 32.  ↩

  41. Dong-Hyuk, “Camp 14,” 13:00.  ↩

  42. Harden, Escape from Camp 14, 36.  ↩

  43. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, xii.  ↩

  44. Ibid., 307.  ↩

  45. Harden, Escape from Camp 14, 195.  ↩

  46. Ibid., 28.  ↩

  47. Ibid., 27.  ↩

  48. Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 380.  ↩

  49. For definition see Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 362.  ↩

  50. Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 389.  ↩

  51. Ibid.  ↩

  52. “Robot (n),” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed May 11, 2013, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=robot.  ↩

  53. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, 271.  ↩

  54. Ibid., 273–275.  ↩

  55. Ibid., 274.  ↩

  56. Ibid., 36.  ↩

  57. Ibid., 274.  ↩

  58. Ibid.  ↩

  59. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, 274.  ↩

  60. Dong-Hyuk, “Camp 14: Total Control Zone,” 70:00.  ↩

  61. Shin Dong-Hyuk was born as Shin In Geun and changed his name after he fled the country.  ↩

  62. NKDB, Political Prison Camps in North Korea Today, 64.  ↩

  63. Hawk, The Hidden Gulag, 209–215. Google maps view available at http://goo.gl/maps/6aYfO, accessed May 8, 2013.  ↩

  64. Harden, Escape from Camp 14, 55.  ↩

  65. Ibid., 12.  ↩

  66. Harden, Escape from Camp 14, 19.  ↩

  67. Dong-Hyuk, “Camp 14,” 38:00.  ↩

  68. Dong-Hyuk, “Camp 14,” 69:00.  ↩

  69. Harden, Escape from Camp 14, 99.  ↩

  70. NKDB, Political Prison Camps in North Korea Today, 354.  ↩

  71. Harden, Escape from Camp 14, 3.  ↩

  72. Ibid., 16.  ↩

  73. Harden, Escape from Camp 14, 52.  ↩

  74. Ibid.  ↩

  75. Ibid., 61.  ↩

  76. Dong-Hyuk, “Camp 14,” 63:00.  ↩

  77. Harden, Escape from Camp 14, 99.  ↩

  78. Harden, Escape from Camp 14, 102.  ↩

  79. Dong-Hyuk, “Camp 14,” 79:00.  ↩

  80. Harden, Escape from Camp 14, 190.  ↩

  81. Ibid., 3.  ↩

  82. Ibid., 181.  ↩

  83. Harden, Escape from Camp 14, 180.  ↩

  84. Ibid.  ↩

  85. Ibid., 162.  ↩

  86. Ibid.  ↩

  87. Harden, Escape from Camp 14, 162.  ↩

  88. Madison Park, “How a voice from a North Korean gulag affected human rights discourse,” CNN, May 10, 2013, accessed May 11, 2013, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/05/10/world/asia/north-korea-gulag/index.html.  ↩

  89. Fromm, The Anatomy of Destructiveness, 297.  ↩

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