Escape from Camp 14

I recently finished reading Blaine Harden’s book, Escape from Camp 14. It was recommended to me by my friend, Jake. It was a really quick read (and I’m generally a slow reader!). I appreciated the book both for its story and for its window into human rights issues in North Korea.

Blaine Harden was a reporter for the Washington Post. In 2008, he published a piece outlining the story of one man’s escape from a North Korean forced-labor camp. The news article was shocking. It outlined the plight of hundreds of thousands of prisoners in North Korea.

As Harden researched further and developed deeper trust with Shin Dong-hyuk (the main figure in the story), the narrative became more nuanced. It would be too simple to call Shin a hero, or an entirely-innocent victim of an oppressive regime. But honestly, the nuances made the story more meaningful to me.

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a prison camp, the son of two political prisoners. And since regime policy is to punish “traitors” to the third generation, Shin was destined to know nothing beyond his relatively-short life expectancy in Camp 14. He was regularly beaten. He was regularly forced to watch executions of other prisoners (including his own mother and brother). He suffered extreme forms of torture (particularly when he was suspected of harboring secrets about his mother’s and brother’s attempted escape). And for the first three decades of his life, he suffered from almost constant starvation: to the point that finding, killing and eating a rat, or just a few kernels of undigested corn in the droppings of an animal, was considered a boon.

The descriptions of daily life inside Camp 14 were the most powerful part of the book. Shin’s account aroused in me a profound sense of injustice which felt healthy and appropriate. I realized that I can spend much of my life immune to the troubles of those who experience suffering around the world on a daily basis. The descriptions of life in North Korea, however, unsettled me. In a good way.

The escape account itself was harrowing. But even though this event serves as the title for the book, I might even go so far as to say that the escape was the least interesting part of the book for me.

In addition to the depiction of daily life inside a North Korean prison camp, I appreciated the story of Shin’s adaptation to the outside world after his escape. He spent time in China, South Korea, and the United States. He received help from several different individuals and organizations who are all trying to figure out how deal with the human rights situation in North Korea right now — but his “happily ever after” has been complicated and nuanced. Again, this makes the story feel that much more authentic and compelling to me. But there’s no tidy conclusion. No clear next step.

I’m going to continue thinking about Escape from Camp 14 for some time to come. But I, for one, am inclined to think that’s the sign of a good book.

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