Blog Post · Book Review

Escape From Camp 14

Here is another review that was going to be/ was not published. A very sad and yet hopeful book.

Escape From Camp 14

One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

by Blaine Harden

Viking Press, 205 pages, $26.95


In Escape from Camp 14, former Washington Post bureau chief, Blaine Harden, describes a world in which burns a vision of hell worthy of Dante or Bosch, that is, the world of a North Korean labor camp. Shin Dong-hyuk is the only person born and raised in such a camp known to have escaped and survived. Yet Shin’s story differs from the typical concentration camp or gulag memoir, Harden points out, because he was born and raised in one. “Love and mercy and family,” Harden writes, “were words without meaning. God did not disappear or die. Shin had never heard of him.” If, as Dostoyevsky wrote in his prison memoir, The House of the Dead, man is the animal that can adapt to anything, Shin’s experience shows that man is also the animal that can, against incredible odds, become more than an animal.

The main thread of Shin’s story begins, when, as a thirteen year old, he overhears his mother and brother plotting to escape. As they do so, Shin’s mother feeds his brother rice, “a slap in the face” to Shin who has slurped the usual watery corn soup for his supper. He assumes she has stolen the rice because prisoners never get it. He fumes because if a prisoner escapes, his or her relatives will be tortured and most likely killed, as the camp rules, ten of them of course, stipulate: “Any witness to an attempted escape who fails to report it will be shot immediately.” An appendix to this book lists the camp rules Shin memorized: nine of them include the words, “will be shot immediately.”

So, Shin does the right thing, according to what he has learned, and betrays his mother and brother to a night guard. But it doesn’t turn out as he expect because, unknown to him, the guard takes all the credit. The camp authorities imprison and torture Shin and his father. During the interrogation, confusion and terror prevent Shin telling what really happened. He learns, though, that he is in prison because two of his father’s brothers had fled south during the Korean War. Soldiers forced the rest of the family from their farm and exiled them to Camp 14.

The following is a description of their life according to the Korean Bar Association as told by Harden:


A few prisoners are publicly executed every year. Others are beaten to death or secretly murdered by guards, who have almost complete license to abuse and rape prisoners. Most prisoners tend crops, mine coal, sew military uniforms, or make cement while subsisting on a near-starvation diet of corn, cabbage, and salt. They lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken, and, as they enter their forties, they hunch over at the waist. Issued a set of clothes once or twice a year, they commonly work and sleep in filthy rags, living without soap, socks, gloves, underclothes, or toilet paper. Twelve- to fifteen-hour workdays are mandatory until prisoners die, usually of malnutrition-related illnesses, before they turn fifty . . . . hundreds of thousands of people have perished in these camps.


His interrogators torture Shin until he finally finds the wherewithal to tell them about the guard who betrayed him. They throw Shin in a cell with an older man, “Uncle,” who tends his wounds with spoons and hot cabbage soup, and his soul with kindness, practically the first kindness Shin has ever experienced. After Shin’s release from prison the authorities execute his mother and brother, an event he witnesses and feels, at the time, that they deserve.

Eventually Shin meets another kind prisoner, a former party apparatchik, who teaches him about the world outside the camp, about the world not being flat, and about grilled meat, the latter becoming Shin’s private symbol for freedom. Having to trust another prisoner for the first time, he plans an escape with this man, Park; Shin makes it, Park does not. After a long trek through North Korea and China thence back into South Korea, Shin adjusts none too well, as is usual with North Korean defectors. He lives in America for a few years then returns to South Korea.

Blaine Harden said on NPR’s, “It’s Your World,” that Shin is doing well in Seoul, that he has a radio talk show during which he discusses North Korea’s history and prison camps and interviews other refugees from the north. But does anybody listen? Most South Koreans, caught up in a tremendously materialistic and competitive way of life, just don’t care. The price of “sudden affluence” has at least partly been the doubling of the suicide rate since 2000.

Harden layers Shin’s life story with sections detailing North Korea’s history, especially the reign of the Kim family and its, to say the least, dysfunctional stranglehold on the country, which has led to not only the prison camps but also recurring famine. Harden understates his story, as perhaps he had to, but sometimes I wished he had thickened the texture of the book with more reflection.

He has, however, told a story of the true odyssey of a remarkable man in Escape From Camp 14.  It is amazing that Shin escaped in the first place. But also that a  person raised, basically like an animal, can recover, can become more human. As Shin has himself said, “I am evolving from being an animal. But it is going very, very slowly. Sometimes I try to cry and laugh like other people, just to see if it feels like anything.” In his case, Dostoyevsky’s definition of man applies in an additional way: he is the animal that can adapt to anything, even freedom. Perhaps South Korea will learn to use its freedom more wisely only when it has learned to face and care more about the hell across its border


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