Part of the problem is the black hole of information that is all of North Korea outside of Pyongyang. The countryside is locked down, spare with computers, cell phones, or even electricity. While many North Koreans flee extreme poverty every year (there are nearly 23,000 refugees living in Seoul), it's extremely rare to have such a personal, well-documented case of the North Korean gulag system make it to the outside world. 'Escape from Camp 14' is such a case.
Shin Dong-hyuk is even more of rarity because he was born into a hard labor camp, and spent his first twenty-three years surviving a man-made hell. Shin is the only known person who was born and raised in the gulags and is known to have escaped. The Economist:
As punishment for dropping a sewing machine, his finger was cut off. He was also suspended over a fire, and a hook was thrust through his belly, to make him “confess” to joining an escape supposedly being planned by his mother and brother. He was then made to witness their executions.
The Economist goes on to point out that the North Korean prison system has existed for twice as the Soviet gulags did. How does a tiny rogue state continue to operate places like Camp 14?
A fundamental part problem is the elephant in the room- the nuclear weapons and missile technology that pose a serious threat to South Korea, Japan, and the United States. It would be nothing short of insane to downplay the potential political, economic, and human costs of a nuclear attack in the Pacific. This distracts the democracies, rightly concerned about the well-being of their citizens. To take the pressure off the North Korean weapons program would surely be a mistake, and will allow the leadership in Pyongyang dig their heels even deeper into the ground.
However, the biggest obstacle to the human rights situation is China. While China craves international recognition as a major player, it refuses to place real sanctions that bite on North Korea. This serves China's self-interest as well, because a second conflict on the Korean Peninsula would probably end up a lot like the last one- drawing the reclusive China into a armed conflict that it wants nothing to do with.
What doesn't concern China are the human rights abuses. It puts Chinese reformists in a difficult situation; addressing the North Korean gulags means addressing the arcane Chinese prison/legal system. The recent escape of Chen Guangcheng, the blind attorney who fought for the rights of over 7,000 women who were forced to have abortions, is telling. The Chinese legal system is fraught with corruption and the prisons are full of political prisoners.
Nothing upsets the Chinese leadership like international attention on it's domestic affairs. And pointing out the torture in North Korea inevitably focuses the lens on the abuses in China. So the only solution is to continue to stay the course- deport North Korean refugees who face certain death back home, and to sit by as "hostile" Korean families are tortured until Pyongyang's violent paranoia is satisfied.
Even with the once in a generation political handover about to take place in Beijing, it's difficult to imagine any situation that places pressure on the rights abuses in North Korea. As long as China continues to act as a buffer between North Korea and it's foes, the cases like Shin Dong-Hyuk will continue unabated. If China truly seeks leadership on the world stage, protecting the worst human rights violators in Asia since the Khmer Rouge is no way to achieve it.
To hear an interview with the author of 'Camp 14', check out NPR.