September 24, 2015

Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

“High School students in America debate why President Roosevelt didn't bomb the rail lines to Hitler's camps. Their children may ask, a generation from now, why the West stared at far clearer satellite images of Kim Jong Il's camps, and did nothing.”

In Escape from Camp 14, journalist Blaine Harden provides an English language account of Shin Dong-hyuk’s horrific life and unheard-of escape from one of North Korea’s political prison camps. Shin’s story is gut-wrenching but incredibly important for understanding the realities of life within the prison camps of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Shin is not only the only reported escapee from Camp 14, he is one of the very few North Koreans who was born and raised within the camp. Imprisoned because of the actions of his family members, Shin grew up not knowing anything different than life as a prisoner. Though many have heard of these camps, the details of their massive numbers and size, conditions, and inhuman violence within them is horrifying to read about making the book a difficult one to put down. Born in 1982, Shin grew up without any kind of conventional or emotional understanding of family, love, affection, or hope. He was truly driven solely by the need to survive in the basest of terms.

Harden’s narrative details the systematic violence within the camps and the many ways in which their prisoners are forced to work endless hours in bleak conditions, subject to beatings, rape, starvation, and much more. The greatest emotional need Shin speaks of was his constant hunger. Prisoners are given only meager, nutritionally-deficient portions to get them through year after year of slavery. Like many other children and prisoners within the camp, Shin routinely has to catch and eat rats and other rodents and even scours through cow feces hoping to find undigested grains of corn.

Though Shin’s story was known in part before Harden’s book, it is only within this account that Shin truly opens up and reveals the reasons behind his separation from his family within the camp, his shame in his actions, how he managed to survive within the camp’s conditions, and how he miraculously escaped. The physical, emotional, and cultural aftermath of Shin’s experience is one that he continues to battle as he serves as a human rights campaigner while having to repeatedly cope with his past.

Harden’s book is shocking, compelling, disturbing, and a must-read for anyone invested in human rights and life behind the walls of totalitarian North Korean.

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