BY BLAINE HARDEN
NEW YORK: VIKING, 2012
224 PAGES, ISBN: 978-0670023325, HARDBACK
This is a book that should be read by anyone interested in North Korea and in human rights issues. It joins Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang and Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy as among the most engaging and insightful accounts of life in that secretive country. Escape From Camp 14 is the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known inmate in North Korea’s “total control” political prison camps to have escaped and made it to the West. The author, Blaine Harden, former Washington Post bureau chief in East Asia, based his account on interviews with Shin, other refugees, and North Korean experts. Harden presents a tale so incredible, strange, and harrowing that one needs to be reminded that it is, in fact, true. Most readers, even if they are aware of the brutal, repressive nature of the regime, are still likely to be shocked at what they learn from this book. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of others have shared the unimaginably horrific life Shin experienced in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Shin was born in Camp 14, one of the most notorious in North Korea, the product of an occasionally allowed union of two inmates. He grew up without any knowledge of the outside world. He was a product of the camp culture, where overworked, brutalized, and underfed prisoners struggled to stay alive. He witnessed a fellow student beaten to death; he was badly burned over hot coals; had a finger chopped off; was lice-ridden, cold, and was nearly always hungry. He betrayed his mother and brother when they tried to escape in the vain hope of getting more food; and felt no guilt, because this was a world that was all about survival and not trusting anyone. He knew nothing of human rights and escaped merely because he was hungry. An inmate told him he could eat cooked meat if he could get to China, although he had little notion about where China was. His escape at age 24 was nothing less than miraculous. But then, he had to somehow reach China, where he earned a living while hiding from authorities. By good luck, too, he made it to South Korea and eventually to the US. Shin became a human rights advocate. However, his life in America has not been easy; as with most refugees from North Korea, he bears emotional scars that make any kind of normal adjustment extremely difficult.
The book is easy to read, divided into short chapters, and written in an engrossing style. “Easy” only because of the author’s fluent style—the experiences of Shin can at times be very unpleasant. Besides being a valuable look into the political prison system, Escape from Camp 14 can serve as an introduction to North Korea. Harden skillfully weaves background information, providing a succinct summary of social structure and recent history into his account without disrupting the narrative flow. Since it is so accessible, it could be assigned for high school or college students with the warning that it is not a story for the squeamish. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of other North Koreans share many of the horrors Shin experiences. This leads Harden to point out two puzzling facts: the relative indifference by most South Koreans to the human rights situation in North Korea and the lack of interest in it by Westerners who mainly focus on the nuclear issue and sometimes treat the regime as a bad joke. The inaccessibility of North Korea, that state’s ability to suppress any opposition, and the language barrier may explain why there has been less international attention and outrage toward its human rights abuses than with other places, such as Tibet or Darfur. Perhaps this book will make some progress toward changing this.