There are currently over 200,000 people in labour camps in North Korea. Citizens can end up in a labour camp for any number of reasons including: violent acts, misdemeanor offences for openly opposing the government. Some unfortunate prisoners have ended up in a camp for mistakenly rolling a cigarette with a newspaper that happened to contain the image of the President. No one is released from Camp 14, the only way out is death or escape. The main character in Camp 14: Total Control Zone did not end up in a camp through any of the previously mentioned ways, he was born there.
In his opening conversation, Shin Dong-Huyk discusses the nightmares he has every night due to his ordeal at Camp 14. He is exhausted all of the time and aims to rest without his thoughts returning to camp. In the past he refused to do an interview about his time at the camp, but many years later has finally decided to do so. He describes his first memory of the camp, at four years-old, going to see a public execution of another prisoner. It was mandatory for prisoners to attend executions unless they were working in the mines. The executions were always proceeded by a declaration that the selected prisoner either did not work hard, or follow orders, and that is why they must be killed.
Shin recounts that he lived in a one room home with his mother and had no furniture forcing them to sleep on the floor. In the winter it became so cold that they would put on all of the clothes they could find to stay warm. He speaks in hushed tones and rarely makes eye contact with the interviewer or camera. His body language depicts a powerful image of a person that has endued a lifetime of suffering. He is broken both physically and psychologically.
The film skips between the hustle of everyday Seoul and Shin’s solitary existence in his apartment. His apartment, with minimal furniture, has an eerie resemblance to the one room home that he lived in for so long at the prison. The flashbacks to the labour camp are all presented in understated black and white animation . The only bit of colour is a bright red North Korea flag. Ali Soozandeh’s animation is exceptional and very detailed with respect to the prisoners and their surroundings. The opening shot of the labourers working in the mine with their pick axes shows adults working alongside little children. The children went to work in the mine at age 6, which is the same age that they would have started school.
Director Marc Wiese also interviewed two former North Korean officers for the film. The first being Young-Nam a former officer of the secret police service’s Ministry of Internal Security; and the other being Kwon Hyuk an ex commander of the guards from Camp 22. Hyuk speaks to how easy it is to be arrested for as little as saying the names of the leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il without referring to either as comrade. Hyuk divulged that he could do whatever he wanted to the prisoners. They could not defend themselves even if they were being beaten. It was his choice whether or not to kill a prisoner for any offence. Hyuk also explained how the two main forms of torture were water and fire. He had a giant aquarium at his disposal to use on prisoners to play on the most basic fear of drowning or suffocation.
Young Nam revealed that arrests were always at night. Entire families were brought to a camp as political prisoners then split apart and never allowed to be together again. He also remarked how torture was normal in the political prison camps and even when a suspect was initially arrested. He outlines the different types of rewards that were given to the guards after the execution of a regular prisoner.
Camp 14: Total Control Zone also takes time to highlight Shin Dong-Huyk’s current activities as he attends human rights events in Geneva, Seattle and Los Angeles on behalf of the human rights organization LINK. At each event he shares the horrific stories of his life in the camp. Camp 14: Total Control Zone is a shocking account of life in labour camps for political prisoners. It is not an easy film to watch but one that I highly recommend.