by: Douglas Grant
A discussion, ripe with spoilers, about the “true” story of one man’s heroic escape from a North Korean Prison…..
A few months back my friend Andrew was carrying on about a book that he’d recently read, a book that remained at the forefront of his thoughts for many days afterward. The book was entitled Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West, written by Blaine Harden, a journalist who previously wrote for The Washington Post. Since the book had apparently made such an impression on Andrew, I decided to give it a read. I read it fairly quickly, and although I found it inspiring in its accounting of one man’s survival and triumph against impossible odds, I also found shocking in its brutality and its blight on the human psyche.
Escape from Camp 14 is a biographical accounting of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person ever known to have escaped from a North Korean internment camp and lived to tell about it. Kaechon Internment Camp, or Camp 14, is what’s known as a “total-control zone” grade internment camp, a place North Koreans are often sent to for life because of the alleged crimes of their relatives. It is a slave-labor camp where its political prisoners rarely live past their forties, and snitching on friends and family is considered to be one of the greatest virtues. Starvation runs rampant throughout the camp, as food rations are scarce, and there is fierce competition among its prisoners for its limited resources. The prisoners are forced to bear witness to public executions—usually hangings—regularly. A sense of despair permeates the atmosphere there, and the rate of suicide is high.
Shin is set apart from many of the other internees in that he is one of the few prisoners to have been born in Camp 14. His conception is the result of two slave-laborers who are allowed to come together as a reward for good work. Outside of this, sexual contact between prisoners is forbidden, and is punishable by death. Shin has no real relationship with his father. The man is practically a stranger. He develops no strong bond with his mother or brother either, who he lives with and perceives as competition for what little food there is. He has no concept of what life is like beyond the walls of the camp, and is subsequently ignorant of the love and affection that characterize the family unit. His “friends” snitch on him at any opportunity, and he in turn snitches on them. There is no sense of unity among the captives of Camp 14, a quality of human compassion that can often save people’s lives when they are faced with impossibly hopeless situations. Everyone looks out for number one. No one is to be trusted.
Harden acknowledges early on in his book his misgivings about his reporting as fact the personal narrative of a psychologically damaged escaped prisoner who may or may not be telling the whole truth. And although UN officials confirm that what Shin tells Harden about his life in Camp 14 is consistent with the intelligence that’s been gathered about North Korea’s political prison camps, Harden is admittedly often skeptical about the validity of the information he’s gathering. His reservations are given credence when Shin willingly omits his part in the execution of his mother and brother. Harden uses one chapter to tell the reader how Shin’s mother and brother are inexplicably arrested and swiftly put to death. He uses another chapter to explain how Shin later comes forward with irreconcilable guilt and explains to his biographer that he hasn’t been entirely truthful. The following chapter is a revised version of Shin’s tale in which he admits with a heavy heart that it was he who snitched on his family because he learned that they were planning to escape. And although Shin’s shame over what happens is palpable in the retelling, the reader learns that Shin feels very little remorse at the time of their deaths. If fact he feels resentment toward his mother and brother for what he perceives as selfishness and foolishness. It’s hard for us, the readers, to wrap our brains around the motivation of such a betrayal, but when we slowly come to understand just what kind of hell this boy has been brought up in, we lean more towards clemency out of respect for the horrors he’s had to endure.
In later years Shin becomes resolute in his own plans to escape from Camp 14 after becoming acquainted with a man named Park, a political prisoner from Pyongyang. Park tells Shin tales of what life is like on the outside, and unknowingly plants the seeds of an escape plan in Shin’s mind. Shin’s having been born in Camp 14 becomes his biggest asset here, for although those who have been exiled to Camp 14 wallow in self-pity over the lives they’ve lost, Shin has never known any other life, and becomes determined to discover the outside world. The two form an unsteady alliance, with plans to escape and setbacks in the form of fear and doubt. When the two finally to set out to breach the fence, Park is electrocuted by the high voltage mesh and Shin manages to escape by climbing over Park’s still smoking body, burning himself in the process. He spends the many days that follow learning how to swindle, steal, and bribe his way northward into China. After successfully crossing the border, he works odd jobs as a day laborer until a chance encounter with a journalist in Shanghai leads him to tell his story and receive asylum at a South Korean embassy. The media and press takes an immense interest in his story, and he later ends up in southern California working for a non-profit organization with the intent of raising awareness of the atrocities committed by the North Korean government.
I try as best I can to keep up on world events, but I freely admit that I had no idea until reading Escape From Camp 14 just how deeply the repression of the North Korean government ran. Something that Harden points out to his readers at the very beginning, an idea that I was hesitant to accept at first but then became more open to, was the reason why so many Americans remain in the dark about the barbarity of the North Korean government under Kim Jong-Un. In our Hollywood driven society, we have celebrities who will often champion causes that take on human rights violations. Harden alludes to Richard Gere’s philanthropy on behalf of the Tibetan people, and George Clooney’s humanitarian efforts in Darfur. But the oppressed people of North Korea don’t have a goodwill ambassador like Angelina Jolie in the public’s eye. I found it even more saddening that he cites this as one of the main reasons that there isn’t more of a public outcry here in the states against North Korea’s socialist regime.
I found the book’s conclusion to be rather abrupt. The reader is left with Shin campaigning to eradicate the North Korean concentration camps and raising awareness, but I was left wondering if Shin will ever truly be made whole. He’ll probably never fully recover from the mental scars his ordeal has left him with, and I worry that he’ll never be able to attain the social skills he’ll need to be fully assimilated by a free society. Perhaps since the focus of the book deals with his life in Camp 14 and his eventual escape, shedding light on the true nature of North Korea’s slave labor, it isn’t meant to delve too deeply into what comes next. And I won’t kid myself into thinking that Shin has anything other than a long and frustrating road ahead of him in his efforts to liberate his fellow countrymen. But I can hope.
I would strongly urge anyone who wants to take an active stance in the name of North Korean human rights to visit Amnesty International at http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/north-korea. It is indisputably the best non-government organization out there that gives voice to the unjustly persecuted people of the world.