Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What I knew about North Korea before reading this book was mainly divined from James Bond movies and the mainstream opinions on the country. North Korea = communist = bad. South Korea = free country = ideal.
In “Die Another Day”, James Bond infiltrates a North Korean camp, is caught and subsequently is held as a prisoner and tortured for fourteen months. The depiction of North Korea is most definitely not appealing.
I had no true idea what occurs in North Korea so I was appalled when I read this biography which is based on the true story of Shin Dong-hyuk’s escape from a labour camp.
First of all, I did not know that North Korea currently runs labour camps that similar to gulags. The camps are viewable on Google Earth and there are up to eighteen of them, perhaps even more now. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners are being held in these camps.
What is even more shocking is the story of Shin, who was born in one of these slave camps. The prison guards, who have total control over every aspect of the prisoners’ lives, pair up two prisoners and allow them to spend a few nights together each year. The plan is to allow the women to become impregnated with their chosen mate and continue the cycle of slave labour in these camps.
(If a woman becomes pregnant with someone other than their spouse, they and their child immediately disappear. Despite the possibility of death, many women conduct relations with the guards in order to receive larger rations of food or other small comforts. Rape also occurs continuously as prison guards are allowed to do whatever they want to the prisoners without any repercussions. This includes executions.)
Shin, who was a by-product of an arranged union, grew up without understanding what “family” was. He lived with his mother for a few years and was then moved to a dormitory for boys. His father did not live with his mother and prisoners were encouraged to snitch on each other in order to receive small payments. Shin quickly learnt that family did not stand by each other or protect each other; he stole food from his mother to feed his constant hunger.
The story of Shin’s eventual escape from camp 14 is unprecedented; he remains the only person to have successfully escaped from a total-control zone grade internment camp.
Because this is a recollection of events that actually occurred, this book is extremely powerful and a must read. How many North Americans are truly aware of how Koreans are being treated in these internment camps? Denied of food and basic comforts (running water, toilet paper, etc), the life expectancy of these condemned people is extremely low.
Worse is the fact that many of the prisoners have never committed a crime, but simply have the unfortunate lot of being related to someone in their family who was considered a threat to the communist state. The theory of North Korea’s establisher the late Kim Il Sung was that the blood of traitors runs down through three generations of family. Thus, the children of traitors and grandchildren must all be punished accordingly.
The state of North Korea as a country is also explored in this book. The fact that most of the land is not arable and many people are hungry due to general food shortages has affected the way that people are being treated in these camps. Because these prisoners are considered to be the bottom of the society, lower than cows and pigs which are sources of food, they are dealt with accordingly. Hundreds of prisoners are killed in work accidents: mine explosions, dams collapsing while being built, being injured by faulty machines are being operated.
To the Korean government, these lives are all expendable and basically worthless. Prisoners are not educated about the world and have no religious beliefs. There is no freedom. These camps are reminiscent of Hitler's concentrations camps, yet they have been operating for twelve times as long as Hitler's camps did.
I believe this book will expose you to so many truths that are being repressed by the North Korean government and parts of Asia generally speaking. We have ignored (or have remained fundamentally ignorant) about the state of life in North Korea because we have never been given a clear chance to learn the truth.
Now that the opportunity is available, I strongly recommend that everyone read this book. The language is simple to understand and the story is remarkable. Perhaps it will not be an “easy” read because of the subject matter (there is some graphic descriptions of torture and death), but it is essential that we raise our awareness about this issue!
I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars.
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