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.

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

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.

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.”

At 4, he witnessed his first execution. At 6, he watched a classmate beaten to death for having five grains of corn in her pocket. At 14, he survived heinous torture, then witnessed his mother being hung and his brother shot. At 22, he lost a finger as punishment for dropping a sewing machine.

At 23, on January 2, 2005, Shin climbed over the electrified corpse of his fellow escapee, and began a labyrinthine journey toward freedom. His own slight body bears innumerable scars of mutilation. When he escaped, he knew virtually nothing of the outside world, yet he miraculously traversed North Korea, China, South Korea, and finally made his way to the United States.

To call Shin’s adjustment to his new life "difficult" is grave understatement: “’I escaped physically … I haven’t escaped psychologically.’” Defectors understandably suffer from a myriad of clinical symptoms including post-traumatic syndrome, paranoia, paralyzing survival guilt. Shin struggles at an even more basic level: “’I am evolving from being an animal ... [b]ut it is going very, very slowly.’”

As horrific as Shin’s ordeals have been, “’Shin had a relatively comfortable life by the standards of other children in the camps,’” a former camp guard and driver told Harden. Others have endured “worse hardship.” Compounding such stomach-churning news is the realization that “[t]he camps have barely pricked the world’s collective conscience.” They hold 200,000 prisoners according to the US State Department and several human rights groups; they have lasted twice as long as the Soviet Gulag, and 12 times longer than the Nazi concentration camps. Google Earth provides high-resolution satellite photographs “to anyone with an Internet connection.” Amnesty International has documented new construction in the camps as recently as 2011.

A book without parallel, “Escape from Camp 14” is a riveting nightmare that bears witness to the worst inhumanity, an unbearable tragedy magnified by the fact that the horror continues at this very moment without an end in sight. Inspired by Harden's front-page Washington Post story in December, 2008 – the article from which this book originated – a reader addresses a chilling question to all of us: “’High school students in America debate why President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t bomb all the rail lines to Hitler’s camps … Their children may ask, a generation from now, why the West stared at far clearer satellite images of Kim Jong Il’s camps, and did nothing.’”

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.

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