I've read most of the recent books about North Korea; both those by scholars and those by escapees. This one, written by a journalist, Blaine Harden, is excellent. It brings to life the terrible reality of life in one of North Korea's many Gulags that exist today. And, what is even more shocking, it reveals the life of a young man actually born inside the Gulag who lived the first twenty-six years within a prison. His story makes compelling reading if only because it is a modern-day horror story the world seems unwilling to hear. After sixty years of this totally repressive regime North Korea is now home to several generations of starving, psychologically maladjusted and physically weakened people. Is it any wonder that neither South Korea nor China wants the regime to collapse? The few that have escaped to South Korea and who remain there or move on to another country, such as the United States are totally unprepared to live in our contemporary world and find the adjustment process extremely difficult. Surely this tale of a young man who has endured what few of us can even begin to imagine will urge our politicians that much more must be done to deal with this tragic country. The damage done to the North Koreans is almost worse than anywhere else on earth simply because the situation is so unknown by the outside world. Why do so few care about North Korea? Why is there no urgency in our petitions to politicians and NGOs over the on-going situation in North Korea? I can only hope that more and more people will read this book and be moved to do something to address this terrible situation.
This review is based upon an advance proof copy. It came with a letter from the publisher stating that it was "written before the [North Korean] succession crisis & has not been updated. The book published on 29th March will have been updated by the author."
The letter also says that "this is possibly the most extraordinary story of one mans' life you will ever read." It certainly represents a staggering achievement - Shin Dong-hyuk was bred in a North Korean prison camp & yet knowing no other world, was miraculously able to escape to Seoul & tell the tale. I say he was 'bred' because his parents were brought together in an authorised coupling by prison guards, as a reward for hard work & loyalty. This rare practice (only open to model inmates in their mid-20's or older) meant they could initially spend 5 nights together & then another 5 nights spread throughout the year. The alternatives were strictly forbidden - camp rules state that "should sexual physical contact occur without prior approval, the perpetrators will be shot immediately". Thus Shin was raised in the camp - his only crime was simply to be born to the wrong parents, as Kim Il-Sung had decreed that if one parent went bad, the next two generations must be 'purified' as well.
This is just one example of the astonishing levels of oppression which the prisoners of Camp 14 endure. While many earlier books on North Korea (such as Barbara Demick's highly recommended Nothing to Envy) paint a chilling portrait of life for ordinary citizens in this police state, Shin's story is even worse. Once he escaped to a nearby town, "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 ... wear brightly coloured clothes or haggle over prices in an open-air market, he expected armed men to step in, knock heads, and stop the nonsense." The details of how he was able to get out of the country also indicates the chilling extent of the poverty & deprivation that have blighted North Korea & (luckily for Shin) undermined its regime.
While author Blaine Harden includes other sources to back up many of Shin's claims, most of them are of course unverifiable. Getting any information about this secretive state is a challenge - particularly when it flatly denies the existence of the labour camps, despite them apparently being visible on Google Earth. However, having been brought up surrounded by deceit, Shin claims he is now determined to be as honest as possible. Only he knows the real truth of that but there are certainly numerous occasions where he paints himself in a much less than favourable light. Shin is certainly no hero - just somebody who survived in a place where even mothers don't trust their own children, and vice versa, each seeing the other as merely an object in the way of their survival. It must also be borne in mind that Shin was not taught a moral code of conduct during his formative years - merely that the 'original sins' of his parents must be atoned for with hard work & that the slightest breach of the rules must be reported to the guards immediately. But then it wasn't until he was in his 20's that somebody so much as "explained the concept of money. He told Shin about the existence of television & computers & mobile phones. He explained that the world was round."
Sat at my laptop, glancing over at my dusty rice cooker - apparently the ultimate status symbol amongst the elite of Pyongyang - it would be impossible to conceive that people could endure such levels of repression for their whole lives, were it not for this remarkable book. It's an incredible story, which comes across as exceptionally honest - it's far too brutal to be anything else. The author & his subject work well together in giving a sense of how such a harsh environment affects the people who live in it. I'm glad that Shin is in a better place now but it's hard to push from my mind the thousands who are still there - after all, he's the only known escapee. We take so very much for granted...
Similar in style & content to Nothing to Envy, Escape From Camp 14 is even more harrowing.
"Escape From Camp 14:One Man's Remarkable Oyssey from North Korea To Freedom In The West" is a harrowing real life
story about the "life" of Shin Dong-Hyuak,born in a North Korean prison camp and to say life,there is inhuman is a gross understatment.
The author,Blaine Harden is very honest,this isn't escape,then life is wonderful type of book,Harden is honest that Shin had struggled with freedom since escaping to the West but when one reads about a life of beatings,murders,rape and "snitching" to survive or to gain extra food,to prevent starvation,life where people are treated like human beings,must be like an alien world to Shin.
I found myself feeling ashamed that North Korea,is really only talked about in the West,when they do a nuclear test or some other type of saber waving,the really depressing thing is human rights are still being abused there,at this moment in time.
The one thing I hope more than anything is that Shin's story helps increase the pressure,on North Korea,to radically improve their human rights,or,at the very least,to give them even more bad press coverage in the world.
A cruel and unforgiving read. Beneath the surface of almost everything, you'll find the perhaps unglamourous reality. The naked muscle on the end of the fork. The willing blindness of many is unsurprising. As Barbara Bush said, "'Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? It's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?'"
In this way, Escape From Camp 14, is essential reading for anyone with an interest or curiousity in the workings of the modern world. With a picture of a dystopian present that could easily be taken from the pages of a futurist author of several decades ago, it shows us a world that frankly is almost beyond imagination.
Only one person has escaped from this world. The bizarre, and frankly incoherently cruel reality of a North Korean workers camp. Here, children are born into slavery and prison. Captured for their lives to atone for the alleged sins of their parents. As a psychological device, it portrays the world as is, with nurture over-riding almost all other factors. If you don't know of something, all you know if that you know. Could you imagine something as glorious as sky if you had never seen it, or even heard it? Would you dare to hope for a cheeseburger, if your only experience of food was rice, water, and lettuce?
The trials of Shin, told without compunction or flair, are shocking in their ceaselessly mundane cruelty. Of parents shot in front of their children for no crime apart from being suspected of knowing of an escape plan. Of not even knowing for years that their parents are next to them. Of not even knowing of the existence of cities. Or television. Of only ever knowing of one other counmtry in the world - America - that wants to destroy North Korea at all costs, as if it were nothing but a single-purposed, unstoppable, political Mothra. Of being kept from this fate (in all probability, somewhat glorious, given that the quality of life in KimJongIlland is so undoubtedly grim), solely by the actions of a heroic, despotic, egocentric but unquestionable, utterly rampant dictator. Oh, it's easy to mock from the comforts of a heated living room, but this is the stuff of dystopian science-fiction and George Orwell. Imagine weeping at the thought of being able to read a newspaper. This is the world of Camp 14.
Written bleakly and without flair, the factual account of this ordeal that is, at this second, subject to millions of humans, is nothing but a punishing experience. Books like this aren't meant to be enjoyed, but endured, and perhaps, Camp 14 is a work that any serious scholar, or curious bystander, of politics needs to undergo to see how easily ideals can become idols and idiots crushing the flowers beneath their feet.
on 1 May 2012
I'd heard a lot about this book in both the papers and tv so I was very keen to get my hands on it. I half expected this to be sensationalist, as it is written by a journalist, so I was pleasantly surprised to be reading a truthful yet harrowing account of Shin's life. It would be unnecessary of me to explain the content of this book as that is the idea of the synopsis so my review is more based on the style. The book is built using regular chapters, each which are relevant and follow each other in uniform fashion. I like that the author does not choose to build up cliffhangers and other such devices frequently used by authors: this is simply an account from one man who wants to tell a story. If entertaining is the correct term, then it certainly is, and you do not get the feeling that the author as beefed up the story as the book is relatively short anyway. If I were to have a criticism, it would be that the font size is far too big. It reminds me of books in primary school. Whether this was done to extend the book from what was surely only about 100 pages in length, or whether this is not the final edition (which I would not be able to comment on) I am unsure, but this is largely irrelevant as the story is the most important part and this was fascinating from cover to cover.
When I started this book I was completely naive to the realities of life in North Korea. This book is a great escape story but most of all a well researched and verified account of the horrors of being a political prisoner in North Korea. I naively though the world had no concentration camps and that mass imprisonment of children for the perceived sins of their parents was only the stuff of Hitler. It is a compelling and disturbing read that leaves you feeling both guilty and lucky to have been born in a free country. I read this book in three sittings and it splits into 3 clear sections, life in camp14, the escape and adjusting to the world.
Each section is excellently written, it is not sensationalist or gory, just matter of fact, leaving to the readers imagination the extent of the horror. Despite the ordeals the subject suffers, it is a good story that keeps you turning the pages and I did enjoy the journey. I finished the book feeling both saddened and angry that such things happen with our knowledge and we are powerless to intervene.
If hell exists, it is a place where utter misery never ends, and where there is no prospect of it ending - where every instinct and effort is reduced to the survival techiques needed to make it to another day. Suicide is not possible and so the agonies continue day after day, year after year.
For the hundred of thousands incarcerated in the North Korean gulags this is the reality - cut off from family, forbidden gatherings of more than two people, with rarely enough to eat to survive but with vicious, draconian and often capricious punishments for those caught with extra food or in some other minor rules infraction, and with work regimes akin to slavery, these camps are a shocking indictment of the North Korean regime, and to some extent to the world that allows this to continue.
It is clear from these pages that neither China nor South Korea want the regime to collapse - the cost of restructuring is estimated at 5 times that born by West Germany after German reunification, and so this hell continues.
For one, and it seems only one, inmate of the camps luck aligned to allow him the opportunity to escape and to make his way to freedom. The book, although quite short, tells his story, and places it in the context of North Korean life and history. The psychological damage to this young man, and his resultant difficulty in settling in either South Korea or the United States is made clear. He had never learned as a child how to feel, and when feelings start to come they are of shame and dislocation. Eventually, however, he finds purpose in drawing the attention of the world to his story and to the plight of the many who remain behind. This is essential reading for anyone with a care for fellow human beings wherever they may be, or who doubts their great luck to be born into freedom.
on 20 May 2013
When my friend gifted me Escape From Camp 14 - a book on North Korea - I couldn't control my excitement to the extent that I found it hard to hold the book open because my hands were shaking so much. I may have jizzed my pants too. Those who know me will be aware that I have a huge obsession with North Korea. I fastidiously follow any news or analysis of the country. My Twitter bio reads "World's leading authority on loving adoration of North Korea." The country is almost cartoonishly evil: from thinking that breeding giant rabbits would be a solution to its famine problem to a brother of Kim Jong-Il being disowned from the family after trying to sneak into Japan to visit Tokyo Disneyland under a fake Dominican Republic passport where his name translated to "fat bear".
Much of the aura around North Korea comes from its relative isolation from the world at large. I bought into the online hysteria surrounding North Korea, religiously following photoblogs of Kim Jong-Il looking at things, and when his son took over, Kim Jong-un looking at things. While I was aware of the fact that human rights violations were a reality in the country, I assumed it was mostly of the kind that would result from life in a highly communist country.
Escape From Camp 14 is the real-life story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born in a North Korean slave labour camp to successfully escape. Written as a biography based on Shin's account by Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden, it tells how North Korea's policy of subjecting "traitors" to three generations of hard labour is used as a means of suppressing political dissent. Growing up in such an environment, Shin never had exposure to human emotions such as empathy or love to the point that he ratted out his own mother and brother for execution in the hopes of getting more food. The narrative then moves on to how Shin learnt about human trust and trickery, eventually making his escape out of the camp on foot, crossing over into China.
North Korean labour camps have existed for longer than Nazi concentration camps, or the labour camps of Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia, yet it's a human rights violation that largely gets overlooked. Western countries provide the country food aid worth millions on humanitarian grounds to combat famines, yet much of it supposedly ends up in the hands of North Korea's élite. The picture painted in the book of realities on the ground is far removed from the jovial smiling faces of chubby leaders in Internet memes. To his credit, Harden reviews all information objectively, often fact-checking with external sources on the veracity of Shin's story, as well as giving background information wherever necessary, drawing on his experience as a correspondent covering East Asian foreign policy affairs.
It's an utterly bleak book that gives an insight into the kind of cruelty that goes on in slave labour camps and for the populace in general, made better by Harden's narrative technique. There cannot be a better example of how much storytelling affects public exposure, since Shin's story was published previously by a human rights organization in South Korea without garnering attention, until Harden's take on the same gave this issue international exposure. I had the opportunity once to meet Bou Meng, a survivor of Cambodia's torture camps who published a book on his survival from Pol Pot's regime's killing fields which went largely unnoticed, and Escape From Camp 14's worldwide success shows how important the narrative can be in shaping public opinion.
There's no denying that this biography does tell an incredible story - and does an excellent job of raising awareness about issues that might not be widely known to many. Blaine Harden tells Shin-Dong-hyuk's story of his life in a political prison - and it really is life from birth onwards and could have been until death, had it not been for Shin's incredible escape.
Through this history of Shin's time in the camp, a picture of a brutal and pitiful existence is built up. Although Harden admits that it's impossible to fully corroborate the details of Shin's story, he does call on information from experts, humanitarian campaigners and activists whose knowledge and experiences support Shin's recollections.
The difficulty in fully embracing this book is that you get the sense that there is a distance between Shin-Dong-hyuk and Blaine Harden that was never quite breached, something Harden himself refers to when he mentions that it was difficult to always trust Shin's words. Writing anyone's biography without their full and frank commitment is always going to be difficult and to me it felt like there were many emotional elements of this story that weren't touched upon.
It is certainly a remarkable read and I have no desire to see someone absolutely strip their soul bare and be caused great pain. Harden does a superb job of putting together the pieces of Shin's life both in and out of the camp in order to tell his story. If the glue that holds it all together - Shin's recollections and emotional commitment to the book - is slightly weak at times then perhaps that's no less than we can expect under the circumstances.
This is the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, a 26 year old man who was born inside Camp 14. This is a camp that holds political prisoners and as it is a `no exit' camp; all of the sentences are life. Those in the camps have no rights and in many respects have already had a death sentence passed on them, but the timing is less fixed.
Some of the prisoners are allowed `award marriages', all congress of a sexual nature is banned; the penalty for infraction is death. The penalty for most infractions is death actually, or torture, forced starvation, severe beatings and miserable work. Everyone has to work, what ever their physical health and if you fail to meet your work quota then you have your meagre rations cut. Public executions are mandatory attendance and Shins earliest memory is having been at one. He is the product of an `award marriage', and as such him and his brother will be born, live and die in the camp. They too will have to atone for the sins of the parents.
He is taught to trust no one, to snitch on everyone and to be loyal only to the guards. The camps are the only places where photos of `The Dear Leader' are not compulsorily on display at all times - this is to re enforce that they are outside society. Hence their knowledge of the country, politics and even food is parlous to non existent. They are kept separate from the children of prisoners who have been on the outside. In short it is a living hell and then something happens that makes it even worse and is the catalyst for change in Shins pitiful life.
This story has been told by Blaine Harden (Washington Post reporter) after numerous interviews with Shin. He has done a magnificent job or relaying the true story with amazing details and references for cross corroboration where ever possible. There is a really useful bibliography at the back for further reading. This is also an extremely accessible book and one which I found hard to not want to know more.
It is split into three parts and the third dealing with trying to adapt to life as a free man and in many ways that is as hard as the actual escape for reasons that were a surprise to me. Blaine Harden has done extensive research for this and tried to keep as much of himself out of the book as possible, but that was always going to be difficult. Whilst I was totally absorbed with this book it was because of the story and not necessarily the writing, so even though I can highly recommend it is just not quite the five stars. Anyone interested in Korean history ought to read this at least once and I doubt even with fore knowledge of that regime that you will not be moved by Shin's story.