Escape from Camp 14: one man’s remarkable odyssey from North Korea to freedom in the West. By Blaine Harden. London: Pan Macmillan. 2012. 256pp. £16.99. isbn 978 023074 873 6. Available as e-book.
The past decade has seen a number of excellent books about North Korea, each telling of life in this ultra-nationalist, ultra-repressive and ultra-secretive country. Shin Dong-hyuk’s life story takes us to its most secret, dangerous and depraved part: its political prisons. Shin is the only person known to have been born into and successfully escaped what is essentially a Gulag within the larger Gulag of North Korea. His remarkable story reminds us that North Korea is not just about nuclear weapons, famine or the absurdities of the kleptocratic communist dynasty of the Kims, headed now by portly Kim Jong Un, a man of similar age to Shin. Shin’s story, like an increasing number of others documented by campaign groups, international organizations and governments, shows that North Korea’s vast system of political prisons constitute a crime against humanity. Modelled on the Soviet Gulags but having long outlasted them (while receiving far less attention), they today hold an estimated 200,000 prisoners. They have remained hidden from view and off the agenda in discussions about or with North Korea. Stories such as Shin’s and various campaigns are pushing them to the fore.
Blaine Harden, a US journalist, spent several years putting together Shin’s story through detailed interviews and research. Born in 1982 in Camp 14, Shin’s life—like that of his fellow 15,000 prisoners—was a miserable daily struggle to survive. Growing up, he was surrounded by death (his first memory was the public execution of another prisoner who had tried to escape), beatings, abuse, snitching, strict discipline often carrying death as punishment, bullying, thieving, illness, cold, dirt and relentless hard labour. In a country where food was scarce the prospects for prisoners were beyond dire. His parents were political prisoners unknown to one another until guards rewarded their hard work by pairing them and allowing them to have intercourse a couple of times a year (sex between prisoners at any other time would lead to them being shot). Shin, born a slave to replenish camp numbers due to high death rates, was the lowest of the low in the strictly stratified social structure of Communist North Korea. He carried the blood crime of his father’s brother who had escaped North Korea. This unpardonable act condemned his extended family to three generations of life in prison. For Shin, this meant a life born into and to be spent in prison. Schooling was rudimentary, Shin’s low status meaning he was not even deemed worthy of indoctrination into the cult of the Kims. School and everything about the camp taught him that to survive he should have no qualms about informing on others. Aged 13 he thus informed on an escape plan by his mother and half-brother. Suspected of being complicit, he was detained within an underground prison, severely tortured for weeks and upon his release made to witness the public executions of his mother and half-brother. At the time Shin felt nothing but anger towards his family members, feelings only understood by reading about the dehumanizing impact of life spent in a prison where prisoners rarely felt friendship, care or compassion. Shin knew no better, nor did he hope for a better future, as hope requires knowledge of something better and he knew of no other world. His life changed when a new prisoner told him of the world beyond the prison. Shin’s escape was driven by dreams not of freedom but of the food that world might offer. While his escape plan was fantastically naive, a combination of luck, his own resourcefulness and the chaos of the famine then gripping North Korea allowed him to reach China and from there South Korea. The book ends with a description of Shin’s struggle to come to terms with his life in the camp, his guilt towards his mother and half-brother and the knowledge that his father was almost certainly tortured and executed because of his escape.
Shin’s story is told in a short 200 pages, easily covered in one sitting but not easily digested mentally. Between chapters outlining the stages of his life, other chapters provide context for Shin’s life and escape through discussion of North Korea’s politics, history, the Kims’ kleptocratic totalitarian regime and its international relations. The book can therefore be easily read by those new to North Korea. The book will also be of interest to anybody interested in how humans survive in the face of extreme political oppression. As such, it has been compared to The diary of Anne Frank or Dith Pran’s account of his escape from Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia. The scale of the misery Shin experienced and the luck of his escape lead some to question his story, but Harden has gone to meticulous lengths to verify it. Some also might wonder what point there is in publicizing the pain of a damaged man. Shin now campaigns by using his story to highlight the situation in North Korea. For Shin and Harden, the world can no longer ignore the crimes North Korea inflicts on its people. It is not just North Korea’s nuclear weapons the world needs to discuss and address but an entire regime of unmatched political repression and brutality. This important book, one no reader will easily forget, shows why.