Some aspects of history defy the imagination. Those who did not live through the Holocaust or the Killing Fields or countless other genocides and civil wars find the depths of the suffering that occurred during those times to be incomprehensible. Wars inevitably bring anguish and affliction, and the only saving grace, in most situations, is that wars eventually come to an end and surviving prisoners and refugees can have the chance to move on and rebuild their lives.
Unless the prisoner has the great misfortune of living in North Korea.
“His first memory is an execution.” From this powerful opening line of “Escape from Camp 14,” journalist Blaine Harden sets the tone of his account of North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk’s dramatic childhood and eventual escape from the most notorious of North Korea’s prison camps. Harden’s account of Shin’s experiences is stark and mercilessly illuminating. Shin is still believed to be the only escapee born and raised in the oppressive and brutal concentration camps that have been hidden away from the eyes of the world by one of history’s most secretive regimes. Unlike many other powerful stories of concentration camp survival, Shin’s story had no “before” life as a frame of reference.
Many of these camps originated after the end of official hostilities of the Korean War more than 60 years ago, but the world has been dreadfully slow to acknowledge their existence. The only evidence is satellite imagery and the accounts of defectors who have risked their lives to flee in the hopes of a better future. For the unlucky souls, estimated at more than 150,000, a future is rarely even considered, as life spans are short and release dates are nonexistent.
Having been born a prisoner, Shin’s concept of a world outside the electrified fence was warped, for this young man’s entire existence was composed of the bleak realities within the confines of the camp, where familial affection and protection was absent and violence, starvation and agonizing forced labor were the norm. From an early age, Shin learned that the best chances for survival lay in his ability to snitch on his fellow prisoners, a tactic that was encouraged by the guards, who were heavy-handed and cruel, even with the children.
Friendships were nonexistent, and he found himself in just as much competition for resources with his parents and brother as he did with the strangers around him. In fact, it is his skewed relationship his mother that led to the torture that he survived at age 13. Unfathomably harsh tactics were used for the most benign infractions, and prisoners were executed for inconsequential actions, such as sneaking grains of corn to stave off debilitating hunger.
Having searched for many years to secure a first-person account of North Korea’s infamous and mysterious camps, Harden’s break came when he and Shin had a chance encounter in a South Korean restaurant. But Shin had been raised to be leery of everyone, even his own parents, so trust came slowly, and so did the truth. Carrying a lifetime of trauma and guilt, Shin was slow to give up the details of his story, particularly the circumstances that surrounded the execution of his mother and brother, which Shin was forced to witness. Not until after his escape, when Shin had the chance to observe healthy, loving relationships, did any sense of regret concerning his family surface.
For his entire life in the camp, the ruling force was hunger. Food was scarce, as it continues to be throughout North Korea, and Shin found the driving motivation for most actions to be his achingly empty stomach. He stole food from his mother and brother without remorse, and he craved any rats and insects he could catch, which provided the only protein. Working in the fields was its own form of torture, as punishment was swift and ferocious for any attempts at thievery. The only fertilizer for the meager crops was human excrement, which the prisoners were forced to collect from the stinking latrines.
Clearly “Escape from Camp 14” is not a comfortable, lighthearted read, but it is a vital one for many reasons. It is a testament to the human spirit, personified in Shin Dong-hyuk, who challenged the idea that he was destined to die in deplorable conditions because of North Korea’s policy that a punishment for a crime must carry forth through three generations of a family. He dared to dream of a different world and a new life, and now, on the outside and surrounded by love and support, he has committed himself to raising awareness of the human rights abuses that have destroyed generations of North Koreans
Every day is a struggle against crippling nightmares and paralyzing guilt, and each morning brings a new lesson requiring emotional maturity that Shin barely has the capacity to decipher. Yet he persists, sharing his story with anyone who will give him a platform. Perhaps with each telling, the ache in his soul lessens slightly, and the world’s eyes open a little more.