North Korea has long been a nation shrouded in mystery. Few from outside its borders may visit, and those that do manage to gain access are often only allowed to see a meager portion of the country. Its inhabitants are often unable to leave freely, and are subject to harsh economic conditions. Over the last two decades, several memoirs by North Korean defectors have reached bookstores in the United States, with most receiving massive media attention. One of the most recent of these is “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West,” written by a former Washington Post reporter, Blaine Harden.
Harden’s work tells the gripping story of a 30-year-old man named Shin Dong-Hyuk. Unlike the majority of North Korean experiences, which often come from the point of view of ordinary citizens, Shin had the misfortune of being born in a North Korean political prison camp, and is the only known individual to have escaped one.
The descriptions of these prison camps evoke images of concentration camps of the World War II-era. According to Shin’s account, food proved scarce, hygiene habits were nonexistent, guards lingered everywhere and an execution actually served as his first memory. The occupants of the prison camps were also sent there for mostly innocuous reasons: Shin’s father, for example, was imprisoned because his brothers had fled to South Korea.
Although most of the inmates may have not performed a crime by the United States’ standards, the society within the camp evolved into a cutthroat one, where the notions of friendship and love did not really exist. The idea of notifying guards of stolen goods or suspicious activity, for example, was an aspect of the “Ten Commandments” to which Shin was indoctrinated. The young Shin was so caught up in this merciless lifestyle that, when he overheard his mother and brother discussing a possible escape attempt, he reported them—which led to their deaths. Shin, not knowing anything different, relegated himself to this society, simply hoping to find some of the less difficult slave labor jobs—that is, until he finally meets a prisoner with knowledge of the outside.
The book covers Shin’s entire life thus far, ranging from his first memory, his actual escape, reaching his first safe-haven of China, and, finally, to his current attempts to raise awareness in South Korea and the United States.
Harden does not merely directly translate Shin’s tale. Though he mostly tells it in third person, there are aspects of the book where he demonstrates his observant journalistic background. He is clearly critical of the escapee: while he obviously respects his tough journey, he is honest regarding Shin’s struggle to adjust to a lifestyle where friendships can exist.
Series such as “The Hunger Games,” which features a dystopian society and discomforting events, intrigue and shock readers and sell well. However, as far as contemporary publications go, books such as “Escape from Camp 14” should be more highly read, in order to gain a concrete global and empathetic perspective. Essentially, this book will provide a lasting impression, far beyond the typical lighthearted bestseller.
“Escape from Camp 14” is available through PASCAL, the Florence County Library System and in bookstores, as well as the usual e-reader formats.