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We take so very much for granted...,
This review is from: Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West (Paperback)
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.