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Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden (audio)

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in 1982 inside Camp 14, one of North Korea’s no-exit political prison labor camps. He was raised in the camp, starving, ill, beaten, and forced to work for his life. His education was meager and consisted of the bare understanding of camp politics necessary to make him a compliant worker; he was trained from birth to snitch, to betray his classmates and relatives, to serve his masters. The concepts of love, kindness, trust, and familial relationships were unknown to him. At age 23, he escaped the camp and traveled on foot out of North Korea, into China, and would eventually make his way to South Korea and later, the United States. As far as we know, Shin is the only prisoner ever born in one of these camps to escape.

Blaine Harden is an experienced journalist, who covered North Korea for years, as well as other declining nations. He tells Shin’s story in a professional manner. Many of the details of Shin’s life, and camp life generally, cannot be confirmed or denied, because we have so few sources of information on the subject. (North Korea maintains that there are no such camps, although they are visible on satellite photographs.) Harden treats this information as a professional journalist, researching and confirming where possible, and giving his well-thought-out reasons for believing (or not) those details that are not confirmable. More difficultly, in this book, Shin recants an important fact about his life as he had claimed it for years. I felt that Harden made a reasoned case for believing the later story given. I was impressed with how he handled the problems of his source’s reliability, which I found an interesting issue. Additionally, Shin does not speak English, so Harden conducted his many interviews with interpreters; this of course raises new questions. When Harden says Shin chooses a certain word to describe a certain time in his life, I wonder who in fact chose that word. Naturally it was the interpreter who chose the word, and not knowing Korean, I can’t know how literal a translation it was, or whether there were several English words that might have been used. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Harden’s (or the interpreter’s) work; I just want to note that I’m always intrigued by the questions raised.

Shin states that Kim Jong-Il (and his successor) is worse than Hitler, because while Hitler tortured and killed his enemies, North Korea does so with its own people. This book makes that argument: the atrocities committed at these labor camps are appalling. It’s true, I was not well educated on North Korean conditions before I found this book. I suspect there are many of us who could learn a lot on this subject. I am not sure I can communicate to you here how shocking the details are – I’d really rather you go out and get a copy of this book – but I will tell you that no one is spared, no human dignities are allowed, there is murder and torture. These details are not spared, either, so be prepared for the graphic explanation of the torture Shin endured leading up to his mother’s execution. It’s not an easy book; but I do think it’s important that we know, so still I recommend it.

Shin’s story is mind-boggling. It is perhaps too obvious to state, but he had terrible luck to be born in the camp, and terrible things happened to him there; but his escape began a run of rather astonishing good luck. Harden puts the escape, and Shin’s overland journey (as well as many other parts of this story) in perspective by interjecting the accounts of other escaped prisoners and scholars on the subject. In this case, he describes the political climate at the time of Shin’s escape, showing how much luck it took for him to make it out of the country as he did. His good luck, though, mostly applies to his physical escape. Not surprisingly, his mental, emotional, psychological escape is still underway. As Harden points out at the beginning, most survivors of the Nazi death camps, the Soviet labor camps, and other centers of atrocities tell a story that has three parts: a relatively good life before capture; horrors on the inside; and then attempts at recovery after escape or release. Shin’s story is fundamentally different. Having been raised for 23 years on the inside, from birth, his release was to a world unknown. The trauma he is still trying to repair is staggering, unimaginable to the rest of us. Apparently Shin is like many North Korean defectors in being inclined to refuse psychological treatment – related to difficulties with trust – and his road has never been an easy one. His story as told here does end with a modicum of hope. But he is still struggling.

Again, this is a deeply disturbing book to read (or in my case, listen to), but I think it’s important to know what Shin and other North Koreans are going through. Please look out for Escape from Camp 14. I recommend the audiobook, which Harden reads himself. His delivery is matter-of-fact but that serves his story well.

Rating: 8 grains of rice.

4 Responses

  1. After reading Jung Chang’s memoir about Mao and her life in China I realized I didn’t know a lot about non-Western history. I’ll keep an eye out for this one. Just the other day I was reading an article about North Korea and it piqued my curiosity.

  2. […] in fact, I think it’s important to question the boundaries. [Just the other day, in my review of Blaine Harden's Escape From Camp 14, I mused over the hidden impact of the interpreter to […]

  3. […] came to this book from my reading (listening) of Escape From Camp 14, which I… ‘enjoyed’ is not the word, but I was very impressed by it. That was the […]

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