Shin Dong-Hyuk

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Updated: According to media reports, Shin has admitted to changing some elements of his story. Human Rights Watch does not have complete information about Shin’s experience but there is no doubt that the North Korea government is responsible for appalling human rights abuses. 

Human Rights Watch's Alison Des Forges Award celebrates the valor of individuals who put their lives on the line to protect the dignity and rights of others. Human Rights Watch collaborates with these courageous activists to create a world in which people live free of violence, discrimination, and oppression.

Shin Dong-Hyuk is the world’s leading advocate for closing North Korea’s camps for political prisoners, known as kwan-li-so. He is the only known escapee of North Korea’s Camp 14 – a “total control camp” that inmates never leave.

Shin was born in the camp, where political prisoners and their family members are sent to work until they die. Most do not live past the age of 45. There, Shin was starved and subjected to backbreaking labor. Guards tortured him, hung him from his ankles, and burned him with hot coals. At age 14, he watched as his mother and brother were publicly executed.

For decades, North Korea has hidden its horrific abuses behind a wall of isolation and defiance. The government has repeatedly publicly denied the existence of kwan-li-so.

In 2005, Shin escaped Camp 14 and fled to China. Today, he is regarded as the single strongest voice on atrocities taking place in North Korea. He has shared his story around the world, through film, written biographies, documentaries, and speeches.

Despite the personal pain of recounting his experiences and the risk of retaliation by the North Korean government, Shin has never stopped working to alert the international community to the horrors inflicted on his fellow citizens. In 2013, his testimony helped bring about the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry. Its investigation has since confirmed that crimes against humanity have taken place in North Korea for decades, under policies established at the highest level of government. Shin has briefed ambassadors of the UN Security Council and continues to fight for all political camps to be closed, and for North Korea’s leadership to be held to account.

Human Rights Watch honors Shin Dong-Hyuk for his tireless efforts to expose and end atrocities in North Korea.