Review of: Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden (2012).
Is it not unimaginable to meet a person with no knowledge of the Nazi concentration camps (1933-45)? Surely most Canadians also know of the Soviet Gulags implemented by Joseph Stalin to purge political opponents and institutionalize repression in the USSR (1930-60). However, I am confident that many would be shocked to learn that to this day entire generations of families are imprisoned and worked to death in North Korean concentration camps (1960s-present).
Earlier this week, Google Earth images presented new information regarding the logistics of North Korea’s secret prison camps while activists continue to demand a UNHCR investigation into Pyongyang’s human rights record.
Pyongyang adamantly denies the camps’ existence, asserting that North Korea’s enemies are conducting a malicious propaganda campaign. For decades the conditions in these camps were poorly understood due to North Korea’s restrictions on speech, media and movement. In recent years, however, books like Escape from Camp 14 have shed light on the darkness inside North Korea’s secret camps. Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known escapee born in a camp, has provided much insight since fleeing through one of Camp 14’s electrified fences in January 2005.
Blaine Harden’s book is based on numerous interviews with Shin. At times difficult to read, Escape from Camp 14 is a riveting account of Shin’s life in one of North Korea’s most harrowing prison camps. In Camp 14, prisoners and their families forcibly devote their lives to slave labour – 12 hours a day, 7 days a week – in a futile effort to cleanse the misdeeds of their ancestors. Children born into these camps are conditioned by brutality and destined to perish behind their walls – typically due to disease, malnutrition, exhaustion, or execution.
Shin recounts how prisoners regard family members as competition for food and supplies, and that affection, empathy, and trust are foreign concepts. In a harsh and primitive world with few meaningful relationships, prisoners are numb to the sensations and characteristics we typically associate with human beings.
Shin’s imprisonment spanned two decades, during which he and other prisoners survived on meager portions of gruel, rats and insects; yet, hunger was eternal. Fear and violence were also inescapable as Shin witnessed routine beatings and executions of men, women and children of all ages. Shin’s willingness to snitch on his relatives – which haunted him greatly after learning to experience guilt – led to the torture and execution of his own family.
Although Escape from Camp 14 is short and skips major portions of Shin’s life, the rawness of his account serves as a reminder of the suffering that exists all around us. By striving for accuracy and authenticity, Harden’s conveyance of Shin’s memories presents an enthralling, despondent journey through a nightmare that feels unimaginable in the 21st century. A phenomenal read that challenged my perception of time, Escape from Camp 14 is a powerful 1950s tragedy set in the 2000s.
There is no fairy tale ending here as Shin’s post-escape life is also difficult and depressing. Only now, years after his escape, has Shin begun to find his way. Most of North Korea’s roughly 200,000 concentration camp prisoners will not be so lucky. Most will never taste a Big Mac or use a computer and, tragically, they will never create bonds with their children or experience the emotional benefits of a simple hug.
For more information about Shin Dong-hyuk (@NKSDH), check out this interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes. Much of the interview covers material from the book, but it serves as a solid introduction.