(Viking: New York City, 2012)
I had planned on reading three nonfiction books on North Korea this winter but everything got shuffled out of order when I impulsively grabbed Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son off the shelf at the library. Not that I minded at all. The three books I chose cover different aspects of North Korean life, starting with Escape from Camp 14, the story of a man born in a North Korean political prison, his harrowing life, escape to the West, and troubled adaptation to freedom.
Two uncles of Shin In Guen (now Shin Dong-hyuk) had fled North Korea during the war in 1951 and headed south. For this “crime” all of Shin’s father’s family was taken to the political prison Camp 14. Shin was born in late 1982, his mother a “reward bride” for his father. The camp was mostly self-sufficient, including factories, farms, and schools. The schools were rudimentary at best, training children how to be slave labor and camp informants. Over the years Shin met two extraordinary prisoners who planted the seed for him to escape—not for freedom but because he wanted to taste meat and not be hungry. Shin escaped and made his way to China, then South Korea, and finally the U.S. His adjustment to a free life in South Korea and the U.S. hasn’t been smooth but the book’s ending provides hope.
It’s an nightmarish, devastating story. Raised without love, Shin called himself “a predator who had been bred in the camp to inform on family and friends—and to feel no remorse.” (190) As a child, he saw his mother as a competitor for food, often stealing her lunch as soon as she left for work. He saw a six-year-old classmate beaten so badly with a wooden pointer she died later that evening. Shin confesses he felt nothing while watching the beating. Her crime? Getting caught with five kernels of corn in her pockets. Shin was nearly starved to death by the same vengeful teacher.
Shin performed many acts that troubled him after his escape, the worst one was informing a guard of the plan to escape by his mother and brother. There were several perverted dynamics at work in Shin's decision to snitch: resentment at his mother for withholding rice from him, the trouble he would be in if they tried to escape, and his indoctrination on informing on everyone, including family members. Despite his role in stopping the escape attempt, Shin was tortured because the guard he reported the escape to wanted the reward for himself. Shin was released from the underground prison where he spent eight months just in time to have a front-row seat for his mother’s and brother’s execution. His role in their killing troubled him enough that he omitted his role for many years, possibly calling into question other parts of his story. Harden does note that while Shin's story cannot be independently verified, human-rights activists and defector organizations confirmed that it is consistent with stories told by other escapees from North Korea and its prison camps.
Since Shin had earned a reputation for informing he was assigned a cellmate and told to report on questionable conversation. This would be the first influential prisoner that caused Shin to dream of a life outside the prison. The prisoner was smart enough to stay away from sensitive topics so Shin’s reporting didn’t harm his cellmate. The cellmate performed many kind acts and showed a guarded trust, something new and unexpected for Shin.
Following several jobs ranging from relatively easy (for a prison camp) to dangerous, Shin's last assignment was repairing sewing machines in the textile plant. As punishment for dropping and destroying a sewing machine, Shin had part of a finger chopped off. Despite everything that had happened to him, Shin never considered suicide, something many of the imprisoned outsiders attempted.
There was a fundamental difference, in his view, between prisoners who arrived from the outside and those who were born in the camp: many outsiders, shattered by the contrast between a comfortable past and a punishing present, could not find or maintain the will to survive. A perverse benefit of birth in the camp was a complete absence of expectations.
And so Shin's misery never skidded into complete hopelessness. He had no hope to lose, no past to mourn, no pride to defend. He did not find it degrading to lick soup off the floor. He was not ashamed to beg a guard for forgiveness. It didn’t trouble his conscience to betray a friend for food. These were merely survival skills, not motives for suicide. (73)
He was assigned a prisoner to inform on but Shin was so taken with the man’s stories that he decided not to snitch. Shin and this prisoner planned to escape but the other prisoner touched the electric wire surrounding the camp and instantly died. Because the man’s body grounded the current and provided a larger gap between the wires, Shin was able to crawl over his corpse to freedom, although not without sever burns.
Shin still had to make it out of the country but he instantly sensed something had changed:
In the months and years ahead, Shin would discover all things modern: streaming video, blogs, and international air travel. Therapists and career counselors would advise him. Preachers would show him how to pray to Jesus Christ. Friends would teach him how to brush his teeth, use a debit card, and fool around with a smartphone. From obsessive reading online, the politics, history, and geography of the two Koreas, China, Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States would all become familiar.
None of this, though, did more to change his understanding of how the world works—and how human beings interact with each other—than his first days outside the camp.
It shocked him to see North Koreans going about their daily lives without having to take orders from guards. When they had the temerity to laugh together in the streets or wear brightly colored clothes or haggle over prices in an open-air market, he expected armed men to step in, knock heads, and stop the nonsense.
The word Shin uses again and again to describe those first days is “shock.” It was not meaningful to him that North Korea in the dead of winter is ugly, dirty, and dark, or that it is poorer than Sudan, or that, taken as a whole, it is viewed by human rights groups as the world’s largest prison.
His context had been twenty-three years in an open-air cage run by men who hanged his mother, shot his brother, crippled his father, murdered pregnant women, beat children to death, taught him to betray his family, and tortured him over a fire. (120-1)
Shin had given up hope of making it to South Korea but he meets a journalist that smuggles him into the South Korean embassy in Shanghai. Shin has trouble adapting to life in South Korea and the United States, failing to benefit from the programs available to him. Harden closes with the last (mentioned) time he saw Shin before publication, delivering a speech that left the audience spellbound. It was as if he were a new person in this role, no longer resisting the advice given him or sabotaging his own desires.
It’s a remarkable account, made better by Harden’s research and reporting in many areas touching on Shin’s story. He provides context to many of the incidents, such as the confluence of events that, unknown to Shin, made his escape out of the country more likely. Harden also interviewed many people in programs assisting North Korea defectors, discussing the many difficulties they have in adapting to their new surroundings. Harden delves into what one expert notes as a “drastic state of change” that outsiders may not understand, as well as the shifting dynamics at work on the China/North Korea border. The changes, including increased mobility and subversive media, point to a promise of transformation although the outcome of such change is far from clear.
Shin’s account becomes even more devastating when a former camp guard tells Harden that Shin had a “relatively comfortable life by the standards of other children in the camps.” Very highly recommended.
The Wikipedia link at the top of the post has additional articles that may be of interest. Here are a few more:
- NPR has an interview with Blaine Harden and an excerpt from the book
- A Conversation with Shin Dong-hyuk at The Wall Street Journal
- An interview with Blaine Harden (courtesy of The Economist)
- Amnesty International’s short video on Noth Korea’s prison camps
- Google Earth images of North Korea’s largest concentration camps (courtesy One Free Korea)
- Camp 14: Total Control Zone, the documentary made from Shin’s story (at the time of this post the movie is available for instant viewing on Netflix)
- Washington Post correspondent Blaine Harden talks about and reads excerpts from Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. Sponsored by the Arlington VA Public Library and the Friends of the Library. Recorded June 20, 2012 by Arlington TV.