Book Review: Escape from Camp 14

Shin’s camp, number 14, is a complete control district. By reputation it is the toughest of them all because of its particularly brutal working conditions, the vigilance of its guards, and the state’s unforgiving view of the seriousness of the crimes committed by its inmates, many of whom are purged officials from the ruling party, the government, and the military, along with their families. Established in 1959 in central North Korea – Kaechon, South Pyongan Province – Camp 14 holds an estimated fifteen thousand prisoners. (Harden, 4)

This is not so much a book review as much as it is a plea for all Hopkins students, faculty and staff to read Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden. This post will not be funny. There is nothing funny about North Korea or the contents of the book in question. Everything about it is devastating, difficult, and atrocious. Below are some basic facts about North Korea and the protagonist of Camp 14, Shin Dong-hyuk.

  1. Shin Dong-hyuk (formerly Shin In Geun) is the only person who was born and raised in a “complete control district” North Korean political prison camp to escape. Ever.
  2. Thanks to Google Earth, anyone with an internet connection can clearly see the exact locations of the sprawling, miles-long, fenced compounds (Harden, 4).
  3. There are two types of prisoners:
    1. Individuals who were imprisoned but have the possibility of release (through reeducation and with the bonus condition of being tailed by North Korean security for the rest of their lives)
    2. “Irredeemables” – those born in the camps to be worked to death.
  4. The camps are so isolated from the outside world that prisoners were not aware of the mass-starvation and famine of the 1990’s.
  5. Irredeemables do not know what the United States is, nor South Korea. They are intentionally raised to be ignorant of everything outside of the camps’ electrically charged fences and guard posts.
  6. Irredeemables never even learn the names of political leaders – absent are the photos and propaganda of Kim Jong Eun, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
  7. Prisoners are forced to memorize and taught to recite The Ten Laws of Camp 14 on command. Laws include warnings of immediate execution for those who attempt escape, plan escape, or fail to report those who are discussing escape.
  8. The work performed by prisoners is hard and dangerous, often without the aid of modern tools. In one chapter, Shin recounts the construction of a hydroelectric dam within Camp 14. Shin only saw one excavator and most digging was performed with shovels and bare hands. A flash flood killed hundreds of prisoners, and survivors competed to bury corpses in exchange for extra food rations (Harden, 81-82).

Prisoners born and raised in complete control zone camps are never fed meat, and many die from starvation or diseases caused by malnutrition. To survive, prisoners have to snitch, steal and collude with guards to obtain favors. Women trade sex for better food rations and children willingly inform on and punish classmates caught stealing food. When overhearing his mother and brother planning an escape, Shin snitched to the guards and later witnessed their execution.

In the introduction, Harden muses on the canon of concentration camp survival stories:

In perhaps the most celebrated of these stories, Night, by Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, the thirteen-year-old narrator explains his torment with an account of the normal life that existed before he and his family were packed aboard trains bound for Nazi death camps…But after the boy’s entire family perished in the camps, Wiesel was left ‘alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy.’ Shin’s story of survival is different. His mother beat him, and he viewed her as a competitor for food…Children in the camp were untrustworthy and abusive. Before he learned anything else, Shin learned to survive by snitching on all of them. Love and mercy and family were words without meaning. God did not disappear or die. Shin never heard of him…Unlike those who have survived a concentration camp, Shin had not been torn away from a civilized existence and forced to descend into hell. He was born and raised there. He accepted its values. He called it home. (Harden, 3-4)

Shin’s escape is remarkable, but not because he relied on his humanity or morality to sustain himself through hardship. Shin was lucky, shrewd, resourceful, and most importantly, hungry. Shin escaped in 2005 and has since struggled to live in the outside world – in his own words, he is still evolving from an animal into a human being.

If you want to learn more about Escape from Camp 14 and North Korea’s prison camp system, please watch the excellent review by John Green (below). The Calarco Library’s copy is available (but probably not for long) on the lower level’s New Books display.

-Signing off, Jenny Barrows (who has little to say)

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