Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden is an astonishing biography of Shin Dong-hyuk written by an American journalist. It describes the life and subsequent escape of Shin, a North Korean boy who was born in the Kaechon internment camp known as camp 14 which was a total control zone for political prisoners who were deemed by the North Korean authorities as irredeemable. You can even have a look at the place on Google Maps . Shin is so far the only person known to have escaped from this camp.
This is a chilling portrait of a young man born in captivity and raised to distrust everybody including his own parents. A heartrending description of how a child can be raised completely without love and trust and the psychological consequences. The first part describes Shin’s life as the second child to couple who’s arranged marriage was a reward for good behavior. Shin was raised to see his mother and brother as rivals for the available food and rarely saw his father and and was trained to inform the guards of everything suspicious. So much so that Shin himself claims responsibility for his Mother and Brothers execution, as he informed the guards of their plans for escape. It also describes the brutal treatment and torture that he endured during his long incarceration.
It seems that this is not a totally accurate report as a few years after its publication Shin went public with several changes to his story, including the fact that for a lot of he young life he lived in a nearby, but less harsh camp 18. This apparently is to be expected from torture survivors as they often suppress the more severe memories and often their recollections are not linear or coherent. The author of this book has in paperback and ebook editions added this forward, which explains most of this. Also Shin appears to admit to being a poor historian but the physical scarring on his body, is evidence of severe treatment and torture in his young life. Even with inaccuracies this is still a horrifying account. Although the accuracy and the unreliability of the account is an issue for some people I feel it is unfair to expect the same standards from this obviously psychologically damaged young man.
I found that this book was almost compulsive reading, I read the whole book in a day, and the prose is very compelling. To be born and grow up in captivity is a very difficult thing for myself and most free people to understand, to live on a diet where the only meat that is eaten are scavenged rats and insects and to be continually beaten and demeaned, personally I find it very difficult to envisage. This is a very emotive book and is almost designed to make you feel anguish. The drawings at the back of the book showing the torture and emaciation of his young body are particularly difficult.
The prose, coming from a journalist is not surprisingly very journalistic. I never felt that I got much of an idea about who Shin really was, and I have a feeling that Blane Harden hadn’t really got a handle about the true motivation and personality of this young man either. Language is probably one of the barriers to this, as all communication had to come through a translator.
The later chapters dealing with the apathy of the South Korean people to the plight of their neighbors was very interesting, and personally I feel needs for more investigation. I think I should read around the subject of the causes and history of the Korean war ( do you have any recommendations? )
This is the first book I have read about the subject of North Korea and it won’t be my last. I have on order from the library Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick and hope to gain an insight into the North Koreans outside of these camps for some perspective. This book left me with a sense of frustration and powerlessness as why these camps still exist in the 21st century, and when bodies such at the UN and Amnesty are powerless to intervene and help these people.
I would recommend this book to anybody who is not too likely to become very upset by the harrowing content (ie. not to my mum).