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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reading List: Escape from Camp 14

Harden, Blaine. Escape from Camp 14. New York: Viking Penguin, 2012. ISBN 978-0-14-312291-3.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a North Korean prison camp. The doctrine of that collectivist Hell-state, as enunciated by tyrant Kim Il Sung, is that “[E]nemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations.” Shin (I refer to him by his family name, as he prefers) committed no crime, but was born into slavery in a labour camp because his parents had been condemned to servitude there due to supposed offences. Shin grew up in an environment so anti-human it would send shivers of envy down the spines of Western environmentalists. In school, he saw a teacher beat a six-year-old classmate to death with a blackboard pointer because she had stolen and hidden five kernels of maize. He witnessed the hanging of his mother and the execution by firing squad of his brother because they were caught contemplating escape from the camp, and he felt only detestation of them because their actions would harm him.

Shin was imprisoned and tortured due to association with his mother and brother, and assigned to work details where accidents which killed workers were routine. Shin accepted this as simply the way life was—he knew nothing of life outside the camp or in the world beyond his slave state. This changed when he made the acquaintance of Park Yong Chul, sent to the camp for some reason after a career which had allowed him to travel abroad and meet senior people in the North Korean ruling class. While working together in the camp's garment factory, Park introduced Shin to a wider world and set him to thinking about escaping the camp. The fact that Shin, who had been recruited to observe Park and inform upon any disloyalty he observed, instead began to conspire with him to escape the camp was the signal act of defiance against tyranny which changed Shin's life.

Shin pulled off a harrowing escape from the camp which left him severely injured, lived by his wits crossing the barren countryside of North Korea, and made it across the border to China, where he worked as a menial farm hand and yet lived in luxury unheard of in North Korea. Raised in the camp, his expectations for human behaviour had nothing to do with the reality outside. As the author observes, “Freedom, in Shin's mind, was just another word for grilled meat.”

Freedom, beyond grilled meat, was something Shin found difficult to cope with. After making his way to South Korea (where the state has programs to integrate North Korean escapees into the society) and then the United States (where, as the only person born in a North Korean prison camp to ever escape, he was a celebrity among groups advocating for human rights in North Korea). But growing up in an intensely anti-human environment, cut off from all information about the outside world, makes it difficult to cope with normal human interactions and the flood of information those born into liberty consider normal.

Much as with Nothing to Envy (September 2011), this book made my blood boil. It is not just the injustice visited upon Shin and all the prisoners of the regime who did not manage to escape, but those in our own societies who would condemn us to comparable servitude in the interest of a “higher good” as they define it.

Posted at May 14, 2013 22:41