On Shin’s 26th birthday, four of his friends take him to dinner at T.G.I. Friday’s in Seoul. As simple as this event is, it is incredibly moving for Shin—nobody has ever celebrated his birthday before.
Shin had been raised in such miserable conditions that something as simple as a birthday celebration was an incredible luxury for him.
Birthday celebrations aside, Shin’s time in Seoul is generally sad and lonely. He has a few friends, but he struggles to make money, and he is shy in social situations. Shin’s situation is all-too common for North Korean defectors living in Seoul. Another defector, Kang Chol-hwan, lived in Seoul for many lonely years, until the release of his memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, was published in English, attracting the attention of President George W. Bush. Shin later tells Harden that “only .001 percent” of people care about North Korea in the slightest.
Shin was lonely in South Korea—a testament not only to his guilt, self-loathing, and alienation, but also to the general indifference to North Korean prison camps in South Korean society. One might think that North Korean suffering would trigger the sympathies of many neighboring South Koreans, but the passage gives the impression that even American politicians were more concerned with North Korean prison camps than South Koreans were.
It’s remarkable how indifferent the South Korean population has been to reports of brutality in North Korea. While there are many admirable human rights organizations in the country, a mere three percent of the country lists North Korea as a primary concern. North Korea mostly attracts attention in South Korea to the extent that it threatens South Korea militarily. South Korean politicians generally have aimed to maintain peace with North Korea, rather than start a war, though this has become increasingly challenging in recent years—North Korean bombings and missile attacks have killed hundreds of South Koreans in the last decade alone. Many South Koreans view the North Korean population as stupid, rude, and useless. Partly as a result, the suicide rate and unemployment rate for North Koreans living in South Korea is alarmingly high.
In many ways, the North Koreans living in South Korea are the victims of resounding indifference, not just their own traumatic pasts. If more South Koreans showed sympathy and compassion for their neighbors, then it’s likely the rates of depression and suicide among North Korean defectors would be considerably lower (although, of course, there are also many complex reasons for this antagonistic relationship between North and South). The passage paints a bleak picture of humanity’s capacity for empathy: it would seem that, by and large, the public can’t be bothered to care about the pain of people who are unlike them.
South Korean society is full of contradictions. Its economic prosperity has made it the envy of East Asia, but its suicide rate is nearly three times that of the United States. Depression is rampant in South Korea—one psychiatrist described it as “the dark aspect of our rapid development.” Furthermore, South Koreans differ widely in their opinions about how to deal with North Korea. In the early 2000s, President Kim Dae-Jung negotiated food shipments into North Korea, an act that won him the Nobel Peace Prize. But after 2008, with the election of President Lee Myung-bak, South Korea suspended nearly all aid. Lee and Kim were alike in one respect, however: their silence on the question of North Korean labor camps.
In this passage, Harden challenges South Korean politicians’ shameful silence on the issue of North Korean prison camps. The brutal reality is that, by and large, governments act in their own best interests—the result is that as awful as the prison camps may be, they haven’t resulted in any concrete changes in foreign policy, either in the U.S. or in South Korea: the camps pose no danger to other countries, and therefore, other countries don’t do much about them.
During their first meeting, Harden asks Shin about the camps. Shin, who’s recently watched footage of the Nazi concentration camps, tells Harden that it’s only a matter of time before the government tries to destroy the camps, and he hopes that America will be able to use its influence to liberate the camps. Shortly after his interview, Shin accepts an offer to work for Liberty in North Korea, an American nonprofit. He’s decided that he wants to be a human rights activist.
Shin realized what most foreign politicians continue to deny: one day, the North Korean government will destroy its own prison camps (much as the Nazis tried to destroy their concentration camps before the Allies could get to them). Motivated by a strong desire to help the camps’ prisoners, Shin then became immersed in human rights issues.