“ELECTRIFIED barbed-wire fences – punctuated by guard towers and patrolled by armed men – encircle most of the camps. Two of them, numbers 15 and 18, have reeducation zones where some fortunate detainees receive remedial instruction in the teachings of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. If prisoners memorize enough of these teachings and convince guards they are loyal, they can be released, but they are monitored for the rest of their lives by state security. The remaining camps are “complete control districts” where prisoners, who are called irredeemables, are worked to death.”
It reads like an excerpt from The Hunger Games, or any of the dystopian young adult novels capitalizing on current literary trends, but it’s actually reality for someone, somewhere.
That someone is Shin Dong-hyuk and that somewhere is Camp 14, a political prison slash labor camp in somewhere in North Korea. That’s where he was born and raised, and that was the only life that he knew until he managed to escape in 2005. Journalist Blaine Harden tells the story of the only confirmed person born in a North Korean prison camp to escape from it and live in Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West (2012).
This is a very enriching, insightful read. It’s a well-researched book, owing to the author’s experience as an investigative journalist. The narrative of Shin’s personal life in the camp and plan of escape is seamlessly interspersed with research about North Korea’s history and descriptions of its current socio-political and economic landscapes, contextualizing the story and making it easier for the reader to understand the gravity of the issues being tackled in the book. This book also serves as an excellent primer on the human rights atrocities of North Korea, giving more than enough information from the get-go to facilitate a global sense of understanding. This book also provides a good list of sources that can serve as a starting point for further personal research, which one will inevitably feel compelled to do after being moved by a story as powerful as Shin’s.
While it is an emotionally wrenching read, the kind that requires a few seconds of navel contemplation or ceiling staring between sections, Harden is respectful enough not to sensationalize Shin’s story. He paints a very honest picture of life in North Korea and those who live it. The great, one-sided, oppression in a story such like Shin’s makes it very easy to cast roles in reductive black and white: military bad, prisoners good. However, Harden presents a holistic view of life both inside and outside the camp, where people have no clear sense of what right and wrong is because there is no sense of right and wrong in the first place. The book makes that clear enough, leaving the reader to ponder this question and more.
Though the subject matter is heavy, the reading process isn’t quite so. The gripping subject matter and the author’s fluid writing style make this book a relatively quick read. The writing is matter-of-fact without being cold, emotive without being overly emotional, comprehensible without being simplistic. It’s a very accessible read, even to those with no interest in North Korea, socio-political issues, or non-fiction. This book will surely pique anyone’s curiosity in all three in a very gripping, compelling way.
While the bulk of the narrative discusses the agony and atrocity of Shin’s life in the North Korean prison camp and the hardships he faced after, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West is ultimately a story of empowerment and willpower, a testimony to the resilience of the human person and the inherent value of hope.