Last Friday I went to Ealing, a London suburb, with a friend, to a very normal residential street to deliver two letters with one of the most basic requests any human being could make: for a son to be allowed to meet his father.
But the context was anything but normal. The friend was Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in a North Korean political prison camp and has scars on his back to prove it, and the house was the North Korean Embassy in London - once the home of the comedian Sid James. Unlike Ealing's renowned comedies, this part of London today provides a home to a regime whose horror stories are without parallel. And as Shin's story illustrates, no laughing matter.
The request was for the release of his father, believed still to be in a prison camp in the world's most closed, most repressive nation. I went with Shin because I wanted to show him solidarity, but also because I was concerned for his safety if he went alone. I had also taken the precaution of notifying the police. Two police officers were on the gate when we arrived.
We were told that we could not try to go through the gate, otherwise we would face two problems. First, it would be a 'breach of the peace' and the police would have to intervene. And second, we would be on North Korean territory, with no guarantees for Shin's safety. We were told that we could ring the bell on the gate, and if an embassy official came out we could present the letters - and if not, we could put them into the letterbox.
Shin pressed the bell. No response. He rang it again. Still silence. He tried a few more times. The regime that thunders bellicose threats at the world and parades goose-stepping soldiers, missiles and tanks to show us how strong it is was afraid to come out and meet a peaceful young North Korean man who simply wants to see his father.
Shin put the letters into the letterbox, shrugged and we walked away. As we left, I could feel his pain. For some minutes he was silent, and I knew why. The emotion was raw. Coming so close to representatives of the regime that had tortured him so severely for so many years was traumatic.
Yet Shin is a courageous young man. He survived the first 23 years of his life in a North Korean prison camp, where he saw his mother and brother executed and where he endured extreme torture - including being burned over a fire, hung by shackles from his ankles, having his fingernails ripped out with pliers and one finger partially amputated. He survived a daring escape from the prison camp and the country which, had it failed, would have resulted in execution. He survived the glare of publicity when he became North Korea's best known defector, a 'poster boy' for the campaign to get the UN to establish a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity, his story told in films, numerous media interviews and in Blaine Harden's book Escape from Camp 14. He spoke alongside US Secretary of State John Kerry, met the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow, and won the heart of US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. He survived the torment when the regime released a video of his father, which was the spark that made him launch his new campaign to be reunited with him. And he survived the scrutiny, the rejection, the doubt and scorn when it then emerged that, for complex reasons of trauma that only he knows, he had changed some details of his story, and among the North Korean defector community and some in the human rights community his credibility suddenly disappeared. He has survived all this, and now he is embarking on a new, personal campaign: cycling across Europe, from Stockholm to Copenhagen to Hamburg, Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, Bucharest, Sofia, Geneva, Rome, Paris and Madrid. All to deliver these two letters to North Korean embassies in each city.
The first letter is addressed to the regime that is holding his father, along with at least 100,000 others in the camps, captive. Shin writes:
My name is Shin In-Geun (Shin Dong-Hyuk). My father is Shin Gyung-Seup.
Approximately two years ago my father appeared in a video that was publically released by your government. The last time I saw my father was before escaping. Then a decade later I was able to see him from that video footage.
I felt so relieved to see him alive. However, knowing he suffers because of me brings me such heartache. If there is any crime that I have committed it is having been born into a political prison camp and then escaping. But for a child who is separated from his parents, missing them, and wanting to meet them again is only normal. And it's only natural for a parent to want to see the child they love. I think it's a basic understanding of family/ parental rights. Nobody should be able to prevent or stop that desire to meet.
I am therefore appealing to the government of the DPRK to allow me to meet my father. I request your assistance in conveying this request to the government in Pyongyang. I also request your assistance to deliver the enclosed letter to my father. I truly hope that the DPRK does not deny this request of mine. My small wish for a son, Shin In-Geun to meet his father Shin Gyung-Seup would sincerely be appreciated. I respectfully request, on a humanitarian level, the approval of the DPRK government to allow a helpless father and his son to reunite.
With appreciation in advance,
(Son of Shin Gyung-Seup)
Hello father - this is Ingeun, your son Shin Ingeun.
I've wondered about and wanted to ask how you've been doing. You must have endured so much because of me. Even now I am very well aware of what hardships you are likely facing and my heart aches. After escaping and for these past 10 years, I have never forgotten about you.
Not just because I have missed you but I can only imagine the mental and physical torment you are going through because of me. I had thought you were no longer alive.
But then when you appeared in the video that was publicly released by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's government it was a relief. When we were together in the prison camps I didn't realize how important you were to me. From the day I was born I was unable to show or say that I loved you or that I was sorry. After escaping and coming out into the world I'm now learning what love is, what happiness is. When I was with you I never once got to tell you Shin GyungSeup, that father, I love you.
Father, through this letter I'd like to say sorry. I have married a beautiful woman with a good heart and although we should have been happy to celebrate our wonderful and happy wedding day we were saddened that we could not have you and your blessing with us. Someday I hope you can meet my beautiful wife. I miss you very very much and it hurts to know you are living a painful life and suffering because of me and that there's nothing I can do for you. Father, even though it is difficult please hold on just a little longer. Right now I'm attempting a request to the government of the DPRK for us to meet. There is absolutely no reason that they should not allow us to meet each other.
It is only natural for two people to want to meet, and for a son to meet his father. It is a basic human desire and right. Please don't die. If you stay alive I believe we will meet!
Father hang on just a bit longer. I want to make this letter longer and say more but let's take our time talking to one another more in person saying all that we want to say.
Dad, I love you and I'm so very sorry.
What I admire most about Shin is that he sees this as something he just has to do, regardless of the chances of success. And we all know, in realistic, human terms, how low those chances are. He sees this as a personal mission, not a media campaign. He is not seeking publicity and is keen to emphasise that while if the media contact him he will talk about it, he is not going to initiate media coverage. Some of us around him will, because we believe his cause deserves the world's support: but that's our choice, not his request. He would have cycled alone if he had to.
A 33 year-old man who got married a year ago simply wants to meet his father after over a decade of separation. Is that really so much to ask?Suggest a correction