Tuesday, October 18, 2016 Tuesday, October 18, 2016

This Man Went From Being a North Korean Prisoner to Powerful Human Rights Activist


What are the biggest issues that you face in your life?

For Shin Dong-hyuk, being born and raised in a North Korean political prison camp meant that torture, near-starvation, and back-breaking labor were ordinary parts of his everyday routine.

At an early age, Shin had watched as his mother and brother were publicly executed for their “wrong doings.”

After completing basic schooling, he was eventually assigned to work in a textile factory, where beatings commonly took place. But his assignment to this place turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as he met another prisoner that would forever change his life.

Mr. Park, a well-educated 40-year-old man that had visited the world outside North Korean, was placed to work alongside Shin.

As they worked  together, Mr. Park told Shin amazing stories of life beyond the camp. Shin, who was starved and lacked proper clothing, listened intently to the stories. Most of all, he pictured the luxurious food that people outside North Korea seemed to enjoy on a regular basis.

Fuelled by the images of food, Shin decided to plan an escape with Mr. Park. They watched and waited for the perfect opportunity. Shin managed to escape, while Mr. Park was unsuccessful

Through a series of lucky breaks and his ability to adapt, Shin traveled up to the North Korea-China border, where he crossed over by bribing hungry guards with bartered goods.

What Would You Risk to Change Your Life?

I recently read Shin’s biography in the bestselling Escape from Camp 14, in which Blaine Harden describes Shin’s life and journey from North Korea to China, then to South Korea and eventually the United States.

It’s a powerful story that is heartbreaking and courageous, telling the story of someone living in brutal conditions and then escaping successfully to later become a human rights advocate.

As I read the story, the concept of change stood out to me. What makes people want to risk everything they know, including their own lives, to go towards an unknown place? How could the person learn to adapt and survive in a new environment?

The interesting thing about facing hardships is that sometimes, we use up all the energy and resources we have to get out of a harmful situation. But there are other times where we are stuck somewhere we don’t want to be, yet we get used to it and eventually become averse to anything else.

Two Types of Stress With Opposite Effects

When we think of stress, we normally think of someone in crisis mode who’s trying frantically to deal with an issue. But stress can be more subtle than that.

The first type of stress we commonly think about is acute stress. It’s intense, sharp, and short-term.

We run into this type of stress frequently, from an upcoming project deadline we rush to finish to that dreaded feeling of boarding an airplane for a long flight. While it’s nerve-wracking, we also know that it’ll be over and done with soon if we can just deal with it for the time-being.

In small doses, acute stress can be exhilarating and even exciting, but too many doses can leave us exhausted and fatigued.

The other type of stress is chronic stress, which isn’t exhilarating at all. People who experience chronic stress are worn out by the day-to-day routine of being stuck in an unfulfilling career, a toxic environment, or any situation that seems hopeless.

If you’re not sure whether or not you’re stuck in a rut, you may want to check whether or not you show signs of it.

Chronic stress isn’t sharp and intense, but mild and dull instead. It can be much more harmful than acute stress because people get worn out and used to it. There isn’t much incentive to change because someone with chronic stress doesn’t know how to or has gotten too used to their situation.

If nothing is done about it, someone feeling chronic stress will eventually deplete their energy sources, leading to a mental breakdown.

While it can be difficult to get out of a state of chronic stress, it is entirely possible and within your grasp to do so.

Set Your Norm

The first step is to acknowledge that you’re feeling stressed. It’s too easy to deny that we’re in a bad situation, simply because we don’t want to or don’t know how to get out of it.

Sometimes it means experiencing something inspiring or even worrisome to motivate us to change our environment. For Shin, it was hearing stories of food that sparked his desire for more, as he once said: “I still think of freedom as roasted chicken.”

By exposing yourself to something different, you can start to change your norm. Maybe it means meeting someone new, going somewhere different, or experiencing something outside your regular routine.

There are times when these moments alone aren’t enough to create change, though. For example, you might feel inspired to start a business after talking to a successful entrepreneur, but inspiration isn’t enough to come up with the right business idea. In these cases, you also need a sense of urgency.

When Shin planned his escape route, he set a deadline to escape by the New Year. He knew that if he didn’t set a timeline to push himself to run away, he would never go about doing it and would spend the rest of his life in the prison camp.

Deadlines, coupled with a plan, turn chronic stress into acute stress, which can be useful for getting tasks done efficiently. Using the “Page Turner Technique” helps you to keep on working towards a goal without losing motivation.

At the same time, you also need to pick the right goals that are within your control.

For instance, it’s nice to say “I want to double business revenues by December”, but that isn’t within your control.

Using a more action-based goal, such as “I talk to three business owners to go learn about their growth strategies” is a better goal because it’s something concrete you can do. Once you start doing similar tasks over and over, you can turn it into a habit that’s part of your everyday life.

You Are Capable of Much, Much More

Shin could easily have gone day to day in his dreary life in the prison camp until he died of undernourishment or beatings by the age of 40. No one else had escaped the prison camp he was in before.

But Shin made the impossible possible. He kept running to freedom, then shared his story with journalists, who shared the story with the world. He’s joined human rights groups and has spoken out against violations of human rights ever since.

His story is a reminder to all of us is that there are many possibilities out there if we’re brave enough to take them.

Sometimes it just takes inspiration.

Featured photo credit: Wikipedia / Staff Sgt. Clayton Lenhardt via commons.wikimedia.org

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