Every so often I pick up a book that catches my eye, it might be the cover, the title, or just by reading the blurb I get hooked into finding out more. While in Changi for our layover, I saw Blaine Harden’s book, Escape from Camp 14, and immediately I got curious. First it was all about North Korea, second it was about a boy who lived in North Korea’s notorious prison camp, and lastly, the story of Shin Dong-hyuk was fascinating and nothing I’ve ever read before.
Escape from Camp 14 begins with Shin retelling how he betrayed his mother and brother to the prison guards in exchange for his freedom after months of being tortured. In that moment he tells Blaine Harden that he felt no guilt or remorse towards the action, no familial love but only a sense of survivalism and duty to the 10 laws of the prison camp. Laws that Shin goes back to when retelling his story: his mother and father were forced to marry and that marriage is a reward for meeting work quotas; each prisoner regardless of connection must “snitch” on one another in order to gain incentives; and prisoners must labor their whole lives, through pain of death, until they have cleansed themselves of their family’s crime. In Shin’s case it was his uncles deserting the army during the height of the Korean War. Under Kim Il Sung’s regime, all members of that family were sentenced to life imprisonment. Their only chance of freedom is when they are dead. Living day by day, Shin suffers abuse, hunger, deprivation, and fear to survive. He tells each moment in vivid detail, from the numerous tortures he had to go through and even those moments when he no longer felt human but more like an animal.
After enduring 20 years of abuse and torture Shin and his new companion, Park (a political prisoner from Pyongyang) decide to escape to China. With his successful escape, Shin begins a new life of readjusting and adapting to a new culture and world that is overwhelming but at the same time exciting for him. Having never learned about the concept of love, family, or even understood his place in the world, his journey outside the camp is only just beginning.
From the start to the last page, Escape from Camp 14 was a riveting read, un-put down-able and definitely an educational experience. There were experiences that I thought would make me stop and put it down, to stop reading, but my curiosity of trying to find out how Shin survives and escapes was too strong to ignore. I felt for him, I was sickened by the details of his abuse and torture but it was my own compassion that made me stick through with him in the end. The very idea of being tortured months on end, being criticized, the devolution from human to animal was difficult to read. But I wanted to know, I wanted to find out how he survived his escape and his eventual introduction to human society.
Blaine Harden certainly brought Shin’s life to a broader audience. His writing captures each moment in stunning detail and also gives Shin a clear voice. Rarely does he share his own opinions, if he does, its usually in support of a detail at that moment in Shin’s life. Blaine Harden peppers certain chapters on some aspects of life in North Korea, backed up by research, writings, and experience he covers the country’s basics: the party system, political prisoners, the famine in the country, the corruption of the Kim dynasty and so much more. These little sub-chapters provide a larger context in Shin’s story that undoubtedly helps readers understand North Korea as a whole.
It is without saying that I feel Escape from Camp 14, the experiences and the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, should be considered the 21st century’s Anne Frank. It isn’t a diary but numerous parallelisms can be drawn from it. Certainly no experience comes close and more so in this century when North Korea remains to be one of the most reclusive and abusive states in the world.