Shin also struggles to understand why prosperous Koreans in the South seem so uninterested in and unmoved by the suffering of tens of thousands of fellow Koreans living in torment in the North's prisons.
"I don't want to be critical of this country, but I would say that out of the total population of South Korea, only .001 percent has any real understanding of or interest in North Korea," Shin said. "Only a few decades ago, the South Koreans had their own human rights issues. But rapid growth and prosperity has made them forget."
Shin may overstate the South's lack of concern about human rights in the North, but he has a point.
When South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was elected last year, only 3 percent of voters named North Korea as a primary concern. They were overwhelmingly interested in economic growth and higher salaries.
South Koreans want reunification with the North, but not right away, polls show. They have seen the cost and messiness of German unification. They worry about political collapse in the impoverished North and are afraid that dealing with it would lower their living standards, according to government officials and independent analysts.
For most of the past decade, South Korea's official "sunshine policy" toward the North was all but silent on human rights issues. Seoul gave Kim's government large annual gifts of fertilizer and made major economic investments -- with few strings attached.
Lee's government, which took power in February, has taken a harder line with North Korea, but a substantial portion of the public remains reluctant to condition assistance on issues such as prison camps, slave labor and torture.
Shin does not want vengeance. He'll settle for awareness.
"Kim Jong Il is a gangster," he said. "If we kill him, we will be just like him."
Instead, Shin wants South Koreans and the rest of the world to pay closer attention to what is happening to people still in those camps.
To that end, he tells his awful story -- to anyone in South Korea who will listen, to human rights groups in Japan and, earlier this year, on a college tour of the United States.
An unforgettable -- almost unfathomable -- chapter of that story is about the execution of his mother, who was hanged in 1996, on the same day Shin's only brother was shot to death. Both killings, Shin writes in his book, occurred at Camp No. 14 in a kind of public square, a place where he had seen many others executed.
Before he was taken to the square and ordered to watch them die, Shin said, he had spent seven months in an underground cell, where guards used torture to force him to talk about a supposed "family conspiracy" to escape from the camp.
Since his mother hadn't told him about such a plan, Shin said, he was startled to hear of it. His torturers also surprised him by telling him, for the first time, why he and his family were in the camp. Two of his father's brothers had collaborated with South Korea during the Korean War and then fled to the South, the guards told him. His father was guilty because he was the brother of traitors. Shin was guilty because he was his father's son.
As for the escape plan of his mother and brother, Shin knew nothing. Still, the guards wanted a confession.
As described in the book, they built a charcoal fire. Shin was stripped of his clothes. Ropes were tied to his arms and legs and secured to the ceiling of the cell. He was dangled over the fire. When he writhed away from the flame, a guard pierced his gut with a steel hook to hold him in place. He lost consciousness.
Shin recovered in a cell with the help of a sickly older man who gave him half his food ration. Months later, when Shin walked out of the underground cell to the public square, he was joined by his father.
"When I saw that place, I thought my father and I would be executed," Shin said in the interview.
Instead, to his surprise, he became a spectator. His mother and brother were brought to the square.
Watching his mother being hanged, Shin recalls, he was relieved it was her, not him.
"I felt she deserved to die," he said. "I was full of anger for the torture that I went through. I still am angry at her."
Nine years later, Shin escaped. He was working in the camp's garment factory with an older prisoner who had seen the outside world and wanted to see it again. When they were collecting wood in a mountainous corner of the camp on Jan. 2, 2005, the two ran to an electrified barbed-wire fence. His friend got hung up and died in the fence; Shin stepped on his body and managed to get through.
"I could afford little thought for my poor friend and I was just overwhelmed by joy," he writes of his first moments beyond the fence.
He broke into a nearby house, where he stole clothes and rice. He sold some of the rice for cash and made his way north to the border with China. There, he bribed guards with cigarettes and ran across the frozen Tumen River. Shin says he is still amazed that he got out.
"I think God was helping me," he said.
Here in South Korea, Shin sometimes goes to church on Sundays. "I go to the church, but I don't really understand the words or the concepts," he said.
The concept of forgiveness is especially difficult for him to grasp. In Camp No. 14, he said, to ask for forgiveness was "to beg not to be punished."
Shin could not find his uncles in South Korea. He searched for them for a while, then gave up. He no longer has nightmares and sleeps soundly through the night. There is, however, a new kind of misery.
"I have recently discovered that I am lonely," he said.
In the prison camp, he and everyone else ignored his birthday. But now when his birthday rolls around, he aches inside.
"I realize you really need a family," he said.
Shin's birthday was Nov. 19, and four friends threw him a surprise party at a T.G.I. Friday's in Seoul. It was his first birthday party.
"I was very moved," he said.
Special correspondent Stella Kim contributed to this report.