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Escape from Camp 14: One man's remarkable odyssey from North Korea to freedom in the West Hardcover – 29 Mar 2012
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‘This is a story unlike any other because Shin is one of the few, if not only, long-term prisoners to have escaped from the North Korean gulag. It is most harrowing not only because it is true, but because the conditions it describes persist to 2011 in North Korea, where a vast gulag is home to hundreds of thousands of slave laborers, including children bred in captivity, like Shin. More so than any other book on North Korea, including my own, Escape from Camp 14 exposes the cruelty that is the underpinning of Kim Jong Il’s regime. Blaine Harden, a veteran foreign correspondent from The Washington Post, tells this story masterfully. Harden doesn’t flinch from the darker side of the story. He takes straight-on questions about Shin’s credibility and explains methodically how he went about corroborating his story. He doesn’t try to make Shin – a difficult and damaged person – more likeable. The integrity of this book, shines through on every page’ Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
‘Harrowing . . . Harden’s account of Shin’s extraordinary, perilous journey through North Korea and into China (which has a history of sending asylum seekers back to North Korea) and later to South Korea is gripping stuff . . . bearing witness will be Shin’s legacy’ Daily Mail
‘Harden sheds light on the horrors of North Korea, with a gripping account of the story of Shin In Geun’ Financial Times - Favourite Books of 2012
'Until recently, full accounts of life in this famine-riven dystopia were hard to come by. Then a couple of years ago, Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy provided excoriating testimonies of refugees who had managed to escape into China and then on to South Korea. The picture those witnesses drew of North Korea was of one vast and brutal gulag. Now comes Escape From Camp 14, a still more harrowing account of the gulag within the gulag, the huge prison camps that litter the more remote provinces of this benighted country. Written by Blaine Harden, an experienced American journalist, it tells the extraordinary story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born in the gulag to have escaped’ Guardian
‘Harden knows a lot about North Korea and he wears his knowledge lightly . . . Harden deserves a lot more than ‘wow’ for this terrifying, grim and, at the very end, slightly hopeful story of a damaged man still alive only by chance, whose life, even in freedom, has been dreadful’ Literary Review
‘Harrowing story of a young man’s flight from one of the slave labor camps where as many as 200,000 political unreliables ― a category that includes not just those who run afoul of authority but their relatives for three generations ― are sent to be starved, tortured and ultimately worked to death. Harden’s story of Shin Dong-hyuk differs from the best previous refugee narratives ― “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” by Kang Chol-hwan, Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” ― because Shin was in every sense a product of Camp 14. Born in captivity to a pair of inmates picked by camp commanders for a loveless bit of procreation, Shin grew up with no awareness of anything beyond the electrified fences. He is like the boy-narrator of Emma Donoghue’s novel “Room,” whose entire world is the backyard shed where he and his kidnapped mother are held captive. Except that the boy in “Room” knows love. Harden’s book, besides being a gripping story, unsparingly told, carries a freight of intelligence about this black hole of a country’ New York Times
‘A skilfully researched piece of book-length journalism uncluttered, as far as seems reasonable, with emotion. It is old now, the saying that for evil to exist, good men must do nothing. And that is what you take away, more than anything, from Harden's book. More than why the crimes against humanity are happening in the first place, more than whose responsibility it is to stop them, the question is why ― for the sake not of politics but of mankind ― is nobody in power doing anything about it?’ Spectator
‘Shin’s existence in the camp and his escape to the unknown world beyond its fences is the remarkable and harrowing tale that former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden recounts in spare, unadorned prose in Escape From Camp 14 . . . while the horrors of the Russian gulag, Nazi genocide and Cambodian mass murders have been amply documented, North Korea’s grisly conditions remain shadowy and under-publicized. In depicting the depravity of North Korean prison life, Harden’s book is an important portrait of man’s inhumanity to man’ Washington Post
Introducing the incredible story of Shin Dong-hyuk - the only person born in a North Korean gulag ever to escape . . .See all Product description
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I bought 'Escape from Camp 14' after several of my colleagues told me that they had read it. For each of them, I think it was the only book they'd read about North Korea. Me? I have a whole Goodreads 'shelf' for Korea because I've read so many. Camp 14 IS different from the others - it's the first time I've read of the life of somebody who really was the 'lowest of the low' in North Korea's strict and complex hierarchy - a man born to parents who were both prisoners in a work camp.
The work camp angle is the unique factor in this book. The admission of earlier lies is also something quite different but a lot of Shin's life post-NK is entirely aligned with the experience of others.
Blaine Harden's book is so much more than JUST Shin's story - and given the doubts cast on his story, it's important that it is. Harden has written a book that's as much about North Korea in general as it is about this one young man's story. And it's very well written and very readable. It is, however, a bit light on detail and work camp aside, it doesn't say too much that hasn't been said before.
Is this the best book I've read on the topic of NK defectors? No, that accolade would have to go to Barbara Demick's 'Nothing to Envy' or Kang Chol-Hwan's 'The Aquariums of Pyongyang', but it's still a very interesting book.
Blaine Harden's writing is like a secondary school essay. There is no passion, no interest in the writing. It's cold and just states the facts without adding anything to the story being told. Huge chunks of time are skipped over, big events take place in the course of a few paragraphs or pages. The writing is just so detached that I felt it really hard to connect with Shin. Half the book is actually not about his story at all but is about the state of North Korea, their politics, economy etc (which also explains the pages and pages of references at the back). I just felt it was so hard to really feel what Shin was going through. By the time I reach the part where he escaped (about half way through), I just couldn't finish it, it was too dry (and saying that makes me feel awful).
I also found out after I finished reading this book, that a number of aspects of Shin's story as told in this book are fictitious Which makes the book quite unreliable as an accurate representation of what his life and escape were like.
I think Shin's story is so important, and it really needs to be told. But unfortunately I don't think Harden should have been the one to tell it. I would, instead, recommend reading other books about this regime - Nothing to Envy, Without You There Is No Us or The Aquariums of Pyongjang. These have the same important message but are so much more readable.
This does somewhat weaken Shin's case, since the book details a partially fabricated version of events, and the journalist has not altered the original text too drastically out of expediency, more than anything (Shin has changed his story twice since the original edition appeared). But, the bare facts of Shin's life conveyed in this book are sadly true: he was born in Camp 14, was a slave worker, was semi-starved for many years, witnessed terribly cruelty, and in essence, is the victim of a terrible human experiment enacted by the North Korean government. That is, the breeding of slave workers within the camps, workers who know nothing of the world or of society, the idea being that, ignorant of normal life, they would be content to toil until death. But the North Korean government failed, and Shin is now (relatively) free, if very damaged. This is great victory of the human spirit which is celebrated in this book.
In terms of style, Harden is an okay writer, inasmuch as he is a journalist. He is certainly no Christopher Hitchens, and I think Barbara Demick is a better writer (see 'Nothing to Envy'). It is a quick though absorbing read, however.