Where does one begin when reviewing Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14? The story of Shin In Geun’s (now Shin Dong-hyuk) life inside a North Korean gulag is one not many people in free societies can ever really fathom, which is probably why the book is a harder sell than it needs to be. Americans think torture is something they see in a movie theater while chomping on overpriced popcorn, or if they’re more socially conscious they might ramble on about water boarding terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In both cases they miss the mark completely.
Conservatives are often laughed at and ridiculed for speaking about certain countries in terms of good and evil, but the truth of the matter is that good and evil exist, and perhaps there is no closer embodiment of hell on earth than North Korea.
Shin’s story revolves around his life at Camp 14, a “total control” camp, which meant he was born there and he would die there. His earliest memories were of watching executions—mouths filled with rocks and bound tight (we can’t have anyone criticizing the Dear Leader in their last moments) before rounds of bullets blew their heads off. Camp 14 had a prison camp within a prison camp (where Shin was tortured). Sons and daughters are taught to snitch on their parents, snitch on their peers and to live in a constant state of paranoia. Women are raped and then executed when they become pregnant. Starving kids like Shin find themselves picking undigested kernels of corn from animal feces…to eat. In short, the North Korean regime seeks to strip every ounce of humanity from its citizens, and they have shown that they are willing to go to great lengths to succeed.
Fear societies, despite their best efforts to turn people into animals, can not succeed. The human spirit will often find a way to break free. People are not meant to be cattle, and they will either unshackle their spirit through suicide…or die in the pursuit of freedom.
What is most interesting about Escape from Camp 14 is that even though Shin was born and raised in an environment of pure evil, he seemed to know deep down that there was a right from wrong. Looking back on his actions now he struggles with the repercussions (e.g., the execution of his mother and brother…and quite possibly his father), but the free, adult Shin is too harsh of a critic of the 13 year old version of his imprisoned self.
For example, should Shin feel guilty for having to climb over the electrified, charred remains of his friend in order to obtain freedom?
Without hesitation, Shin crawled over his friend’s body, using it as a kind of insulating pad. As he squirmed through the fence, Shin could feel the current. The soles of his feet felt as though needles were stabbing them.
Shin was nearly through the fence when his lower legs slipped off Park’s torso and came into direct contact, through the two pairs of pant he was wearing, with the bottom strand. Voltage from the wire caused severe burns from his ankles to his knees. The wounds bled for weeks. But it would be a couple of hours before Shin noticed how badly he had been injured.
What he remembers most clearly about crawling through the fence was that Park’s body smelled like it was burning.
There is a reason why Shin still wakes up from nightmares, screaming as his mind conjures up images of his dead mother, brother and friend. The guilt that he feels, however, is misplaced, as it is the tyrannical North Korean regime’s seeds that sprout in his mind. They are responsible for the heartache and pain Shin feels, not him.
We all have a purpose in life, and I can’t help but think that Shin’s was to break free from North Korea and tell the world what is truly going on inside their border. If you get a chance, pick up a copy of Escape from Camp 14. You’ll be glad you did.
I just finished A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich from Audible, Not quite ready to dive into this one, but I’ll put it on my list. Thanks for the heads up.
If you haven’t read The Aquariums of Pyongyang, I’d check that out first. Both books are good reads, but I think Aquariums was better.
kcat1: The first thing I thought of when I finished reading the article was my memory of reading “A Day In The Life Of Ivan Desisovich” many, many years ago. The second thing that went through my mind is that here in Arizona, we have Sheriff Joe, who runs a tent city for prisoners in 120 degree heat, (180 inside the tents), with no fans. Because I live in AZ I am reminded every day that we are not without our own institutional problems.
Glad you brought this …
Just finished the book (I’ll have it for you on Monday). It’s truly sobering stuff. Having re-read your post here, I’m amazed once again by the sheer effort North Korea puts into harming its own citizens. I read somewhere that true evil is evil done with banality. Truly, the ways in which this regime uses every minute detail to further collective suffering speaks to that.
I have one small point of contention. I really like your sentence about fear societies, but I fear that until every person in these camps are free they’ve achieved a measure of success, as awful as that is.
Here’s to hoping that North Korea finds freedom sooner rather than later.
Glad you liked the book. I was somewhat clumsy with the wording of that sentence. I meant to say that they couldn’t succeed in stripping away an individual’s humanity. I might tweak that because I do agree, on many levels North Korea has succeeded (sadly).
I’ll have to see if I have The Aquariums of Pyongyang handy. That’s an amazing book, too.
Well put..I am hooked on reading more future articles.
Great book and a great article.
Thanks. I wish more people knew what was really gone inside North Korea. I appreciate the read.