What is freedom and what is the price for it? That may be the quintessential question of the century for the entire world. It is something that, as Americans, we have mostly forgotten, or don’t take seriously enough.
Shin Dong-hyuk was a prisoner in a North Korean concentration camp. He didn’t understand the concept of being ‘free.’ In his own words, he thought: “everywhere was like there.” He thought the world was one big concentration camp. He had no thoughts to escape–like so many who live with oppression, he had no idea there was anything better. The slave-like adherence to and tolerance of what outsiders consider an intolerable condition is due to little more than ignorance of what freedom is.
Because Shin was born into this life, because he knew no other way of life, he not only adhered to the conditions of slavery, he was also slavishly obedient to them. He turned in his mother and brother for seeking freedom. He had no regrets over this when he still lived in the camp, because there was nothing to regret. He did not ‘believe’ in freedom.
That is until an outsider joined the camp and proselytized to Shin the perks of freedom.
And what was the amazing fact of freedom that turned Shin from an agnostic to a believer in the concept of freedom?
In Shin’s life in the camp there was no such thing as a meal with chicken. The story of this new prisoner eating chicken in a camp full of people so starving for meat that the rats in the camp became extinct was enough for Shin. That’s it.
That people ate chicken outside the camp was enough to motivate Shin to make plans to escape–something he himself had turned his closest relatives in for. It was the mustard seed of faith–the faith that there was a place where he could eat what he wanted–which was needed for action. Actions that included walking over the body of his dead friend.
The price of Shin’s freedom was action, but the reward for those actions was not simply a meal with chicken–it was meals with beef, pork, fish and game. It was money for his story. It was awareness. It was enlightenment. It was knowledge.
It was a deeper understanding of freedom and the price of it. In his interview with Anderson Cooper on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Shin said: ” I think I am still evolving — from an animal to a human.”
It took only three generations for Shin’s family to become so deeply entrenched in slavery that they did not know what freedom was and for Shin to not even recognize what it was to be human. But it only took chicken, and the actions needed to obtain it, to set him free and start his evolution.
Shin says his decisions in the camp still haunt him now that he understands and enjoys freedom. Let’s hope we don’t forget what freedom is, or the price that must be paid to (re)gain it.
Edited to Add: Religion gives us a hope beyond reality, that lets us endure slavery and do the necessary work to be free. Without religion, there is always fantasy, myth and dreams. If you can’t teach your children to believe in a higher power outside of themselves, you can at least teach them to believe in their own dreams, or to dream a reality beyond this one (worldbuilding/Tolkien Style). It might keep them alive inside, and help keep them from being enslaved, or slavish.