Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The story of a man escaping a prison camp would pique my interest at any time, but add the detail that it's a North Korean camp and I'm definitely interested. After all, North Korea's been in the news lately. Perhaps you've noticed.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born into a prison labor camp. It's totalitarian rules and draconian punishment was life to him. He barely knew his father and viewed his mother as competition for food. He was raised to snitch out his fellow prisoners to the guards. This included family. Spying and reporting on others was the only way to receive kind treatment at the prison. Working hard and never screwing up merely kept one from being beaten.
Thousands have fled the destitute country, but few have escaped from one of these prisons and successfully navigated their way into China and then South Korea, an especially difficult undertaking for a young man who knew next to nothing about the world beyond his prison walls. This is what made me hesitant to read Blaine Harden's Escape from Camp 14. How could this seemingly impossible tale be true? Then I heard that Shin had lied about certain details regarding his story and I thought, oh boy, here we go...
However, Harden did a good job in allaying my fears. It turns out Shin's lies did not change the details of his escape or the horror stories of his confinement. No, his lies were for self-preservation. He lied out of shame for the deaths he had caused as a boy who knew nothing of compassion.
This is a truly remarkable story and a nicely constructed book. It is compact and sticks mostly to the prison camp aspect of the situation in North Korea. Some pertinent recent history and political information is relayed in order to frame Shin's story, but this is not the book you are looking for if you seek out a well-rounded and deeply detailed account of...well...how the hell North Korea got so fucked up. I did come away with a better understanding, however, and it made me want to find out more.
One last thing before I finish up. This is a tough read. It's brutal. "Heart-wrenching" ain't the half of it. To put it into perspective, these camps are akin to the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet gulags, and they have been in operation since the 1950s. The prisoners within them are now mostly the children and grandchildren of those who fought for the South during the Korean War, because political prisoners of this nature are doomed to this life for three generations before the family is deemed to have paid the price of their transgressions. Only humans could create such a Hell.
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