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Escape from Camp 14

This true story of life in a North Korean prison camp may be the most disturbing book that you will ever read.

By Terry Hong / April 2, 2012

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West By Blaine Harden Viking/Penguin 205 pp.

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Escape from Camp 14 is the most devastating book I have ever read. Perhaps the resilience of youth got me through the aftermath of learning about slavery, the Holocaust, even Iris Chang’s now-classic “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust,” the title I previously held as the most horrific testimony of inhumanity.

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More recently, I cried through 2010 National Book Award nonfiction finalist Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” I ignorantly questioned the veracity of the torturous conditions in Adam Johnson’s recent, deservedly bestselling novel “The Orphan Master’s Son.” I paid attention to headlines about North Korea’s potential nuclear threats and the succession of Kim Jong Eun to the mythic Kim Dynasty.

But nothing prepared me for the odyssey of North Korean Shin Dong-Hyuk as told by journalist Blaine Harden, former Washington Post bureau chief for East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa. Shin, who changed his name “after arriving in South Korea, an attempt to reinvent himself as a free man,” is the only known North Korean who was born in a prison camp to have escaped and survived.

Shin’s story is vastly different from that of other survivors; as Blaine chillingly reveals, it doesn’t fit “a conventional narrative arc [of survival]” which includes a loving family, a comfortable home, a sense of community governed by moral principles, from which the protagonist is brutally torn. In utter contrast, Shin began his life barely human: his prisoner parents were arbitrarily paired by guards to breed, whatever offspring they produced would become slaves who would work and die in Camp 14, considered “[b]y reputation ... the toughest” of the country’s six known camps.

Shin experienced no familial bonds. His mother was nothing more than competition for food. He barely saw his older brother and father. He described himself “as a predator who had been bred in the camp to inform on family and friends – and feel no remorse.” Preying equaled survival. Only much later would Shin learn the criminal history of his family: “The unforgivable crime Shin’s father had committed was being the brother of two young men who had fled south during [the Korean War]... Shin’s unforgivable crime was being his father’s son.”

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