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Escape From Camp 14 - Book Review

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by Catherine Van Bergen (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer who lives on the Bellarine Peninsula. I enjoy finding new things to see and do in the beautiful area that I live in. I'm also a booklover- see my reviews at
Published August 5th 2012
I have to confess that before reading this biography, I knew nothing much about North Korea. Admittedly, I still don't know a lot about this tyrannical state, which has been run by the same family for over fifty years. But, thanks to reading Escape From Camp 14, my understanding of the country has definitely grown, and I am now more aware of the gross human injustices that are a part of the daily workings of the North Korean people.

This biography, written by acclaimed journalist and author Blaine Harden, tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in a North Korean gulag (or prison camp) and managed to escape. While other people have escaped from these camps in the past, he is the only person (as far as we know) to have escaped having previously known no other life outside of the prison camp walls.

Shin's life has been both remarkable and heart wrenching. He was basically the product of a loveless marriage by a couple who 'won' the right to marry (as a reward for hard work). With his parents living in separate areas of the compound, and only able to spend five consecutive nights together, a few times a year, Shin never really knew his father or his older brother (who at the mandatory age of twelve, moved into a dormitory with other boys of his age).

Told that he was a prisoner because of the 'sins' of his family, Shin and the other young children of the camp were taught from an early age that informing on wrongdoers, working hard and obeying the guards would result in rewards and a chance to wash away their 'traitorous blood'. As a result, daily snitching for food rewards became the norm, and children grew up suspicious and untrusting of everybody, for fear that they would be informed on themselves. Cruel punishments, food ration deprivation, and sometimes even death were strong motivators for keeping to yourself and avoiding any kind of friendly interaction, which meant that most of the children grew up socially-challenged and 'broken'. With chronic food shortages and hard labour adding to this mix, being a selfish, greedy scavenger of food scraps could sometimes be the only way to survive.

To further complicate an already difficult life, at the age of thirteen, Shin was tortured and held for seven months in an underground prison, after his mother and brother attempted to escape from the camp. He, along with the rest of the camp, was later made to watch as they were executed in the public square, serving as a deterrent to anyone else who would consider making such a drastic move.

As the years passed, Shin worked on a dam, in the mines, on a pig farm and as a sewing machine repairer in the camp. But it wasn't until he was twenty-three, and started associating with a fellow prisoner who had been caught defecting from North Korea, that he began to seriously consider life outside the electric fence of Camp 14. As a teenager, he had met one man who told him all about the wonderful food in China and beyond, but had not thought much more of it since. With new inspiration, Shin decided he wanted a real life and, along with the defector, Park Yong Chul, planned to escape…

Blaine Harden paints a vivid portrait of Shin's struggles to survive Camp 14, a labour camp where you serve a life sentence, until you are 'executed, killed in work-related accidents or die of illness that is usually triggered by hunger'. He also tells of Shin's attempts to assimilate into a foreign culture, and his difficulties in accepting even a small token of respect or encouragement.

Harden intersperses the narrative with information regarding North Korea, including its policies, the reigning Kim family, the social hierarchy and the Western world's attitudes and indifference towards the country. What really makes me upset is the fact that so many people (up to two hundred thousand) are trapped in a never-ending cycle of pain and misfortune and yet hardly anyone is aware of the situation.

Many of these North Koreans are living in conditions similar to those of the Nazi concentration camps, and are being treated in much the same way, yet because the country is so unstable (with regards to nuclear weapons, etc), nobody in the West is willing to make a move to change things. As the author mentions, many of these camps are clearly visible in satellite imagery, and although the situation is hushed, there are still plenty of reports around to suggest that North Korea is treating a majority of its people inhumanely.

Shin now tours around America, telling his story and encouraging Government action against the country that held him captive for twenty-three years. This book is a powerfully written chronicle of one young man's struggle to survive when the odds have been stacked against him from birth, and I highly recommend reading it, if only to make you aware that there is more horror in the world than is reported in the daily news.
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Why? To read about one courageous North Korean's escape from a prison camp
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