Andrew's Reviews > Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden
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May 17, 12

Read in May, 2012

Indigo Non-Fiction Blog

Read this book.

No, really, read this book.

Escape From Camp 14 is Shin Dong-Hyuk’s recollection of his life in a North Korean prison camp, or gulag, and eventual escape through China to South Korea. Shin’s story, told by PBS reporter Blaine Harden, is a prison memoir worthy to stand beside Solzhenitsyn’s classic description of the Soviet gulags, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Escape From Camp 14 is entirely matter-of-fact and Harden, in spare prose, has no need to rely on emotional or political handwringing to incite moral outrage. Shin’s life in a universe of alien moral dimensions, his terribly unlikely escape, and stumbling adaptation to life outside North Korea is alone sufficient to shake the reader.

As Harden warns, this is no typical prison story of unjust arrest, descent into a barbaric survival, and redemptive liberation. Instead, it tells of a man born into the gulag from a “reward marriage” permitted to two productive workers. Shin’s childhood is training for his future as a labourer, and his often violent education gives him literacy, numeracy, and, in an Orwellian twist, a memory of the Ten Laws of the camp that promise to offenders immediate execution. Raised in this environment, Shin doesn’t agonize over the morality of snitching on his own family or the deadly consequences – he simply wonders who among the guards will give him the best deal for information. As he grows up, Shin becomes the model North Korean worker-inmate: uncomplaining, ready to snitch, and unaware that people can care for or even trust others. His reward is jobs that avoid the dreaded mines, into which his childhood companions disappear. This eventually brings him into an alliance with a Chinese prisoner who becomes Shin’s Abbé Faria, who tells Shin of a world beyond the camp wire governed under difference principles. They plot an escape that, unlike the normal escape narrative, succeeds due to luck rather than bravery, preparation, or the cosmic justice owed to the oppressed. From here, Shin is thrust into “free” North Korea where he begins to learn to trust people – or as Shin says, where he begins to “learn to be human”. His education in humanity continues as he moves through China, assimilates into South Korea, and eventually moves to America where he now works for an advocacy group.

This book rightly troubles us. On one level, it is a fascinating view into the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea. Camp 14 is the most secure of North Korea’s gulag system and Shin remains its only known escapee, but analysts and North Korean refugees corroborate his story. Reading this draws one into a 1950s Stalinist time-warp. The camp and country are shocking because history should teach us what to expect while, in 2012, we shouldn’t have to expect the existence of such a society. Shin’s story troubles our conscience, because the West fought the Soviet system and contemporary human rights abuses, but the battle against North Korean gulags remains unchampioned.

Escape From Camp 14, even if it were a terrible book, should change this and it has already inspired a leading editorial from The Economist. It is, however, Shin’s story that is most troubling because, while fictional dystopias like The Hunger Games entertain millions, his dystopia is real. Shin’s story threatens belief in the inherent goodness of man – for if at some level man is good, then, like in the fictional gulags, a hero would surely emerge to rebel against such abuse. But Shin doesn’t. He is born into a world knowing only hunger, labour, and what we would call betrayal. When he emerges into our moral universe he brings with him real flaws and scars as memories of darker days, and reminders of the terribly thin boundary between civilization and barbarity.
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