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Life in a North Korean Labor Camp

Everything you have known about North Korea will become more horrifying from a reading of Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the WestForget the questionable sub-title and concentrate on Harden’s gruesome account of the only known person born in a North Korean concentration camp to escape both from the camp itself and the country.

Because Shin-Dong-hyuk’s parents were model prisoners in Camp 14, their union was a “reward” marriage, which meant seeing each other only a few times each year, and although Shin lived with his mother, there was no affection—no emotion—between the two of them.  The dog-eat-dog environment did not permit that.  As Harden describes the context, “His mother beat him, and he viewed her as a competitor for food.  His father, who was allowed by guards to sleep with his mother just five nights a year, ignored him.  His [older] brother was a stranger.  Children in the camp were untrustworthy and abusive.  Before he learned anything else, Shin learned to survive by snitching on all of them.  Love and mercy and family were words without meaning.”

Shin lived with his mother in Camp 14’s “model village.”  The two of them slept on the concrete floor of their own room.  “There were no beds, chairs, or tables…running water…bath or shower.”  Essentially, they lived like animals.  A communal privy was divided into male and female sections.  “Defecating and urinating there were mandatory, as human waste was used as fertilizer on the camp farm.”  After increasing famine in North Korea, government officials instigated a nation-wide movement to collect human excrement: “frozen human waste has been chipped out of public toilets in cities and towns across the country.”  The book is as revealing about life in the entire country as it is inside the camps.

Food in the camps (mostly boiled corn and cooked cabbage) was always scarce, resulting in stunted growth.  Shin tells Harden of an incident when a young girl was killed in the classroom by her teacher, who discovered that the girl had found five kernels of corn.  Schooling itself was “rudimentary literacy and numeracy,” and—because of his parents—Shin was privileged to be “educated.”  Yet, “He had been trained by guards and teachers to believe that every time he was beaten, he deserved it—because of the treasonous blood he had inherited from his parents.”

One night, Shin overhears his mother and older brother plotting to escape, and since he can only think of himself, he snitches, hoping that his own situation will improve.  He’s about thirteen at the time, but the result backfires.  Not only does he have to observe his mother and brother being executed, but he’s tortured for six months until the authorities realize that he was the one who revealed his mother and brother’s plan—not the man Shin reported their escape to.  Thus, finally, his own living conditions improve but the price becomes the enormous guilt of his mother and brother’s deaths.

After schooling at age sixteen, he is assigned one of the better jobs in the camp, working on a farm—better only because of the opportunities for finding more food.  It is food—or rather starvation—that becomes the motivation for almost every subsequent act in his life.  In 2003, a couple of years later, Shin is transferred again, this time to the garment factory, where military uniforms are made.  His job: repairing sewing machines.  In the factory, he is given an assistant from outside the camp, a recently incarcerated prisoner, named Park, who is not only educated but at one stage in his life had been permitted to travel abroad.  It is from Park that Shin for the first time becomes aware of the outside world.  In his earlier schooling, he had had no exposure to life in North Korea outside the labor camp—let alone the rest of the world.  More than anything else, Shin learns that food can be something besides corn and cabbage.

The two of them plot their own escape from Camp 14 and although Shin is successful, Park is not, and that factor will result in still another layer of guilt much later for the young man, after he manages to cross much of the country and—after a series of fortunate breaks—flees into China.  Yet even in China, not everything goes well for Shin.  He is exploited by Chinese farmers, but finally he has enough food in his stomach.

In time, Shin will cross China and be flown to Seoul with the help of several advocacy groups, all of them surprised by the stunning revelation of his escape from Camp 14.  Blaine Harden, at the time a reporter for the Washington Post, learned about the young man and became one of his several mentors.  Part of his work was to verify the authenticity of Shin’s story.  Even the existence of the camps is denied by North Korean authorities, though they can easily be located with Google Maps.  Shin—riddled with guilt about the deaths of his mother, his brother, and Park, as well as fear that once he escaped Camp 14 that his father may have been executed—had to begin a new journey, dealing with the demons of the past who haunt him, i.e., post-traumatic syndrome.

Harden tells us that most North Koreans who manage to escape their country—and there are thousands of them, though rarely those who have lived in concentration camps—suffer from paranoia, a fear of revealing anything about themselves, and an inability to express human emotion.  They also suffer from what would be preventable diseases in the rest of the world.  Worse, South Koreans tend to be uninterested in refugees from the North.  The most shocking paragraph in the narrative may be the following one:

“South Koreans have paid close attention to the price tag of German unification.  The proportional burden on South Korea, some studies have found, would be two and a half times greater than on West Germany after it absorbed the former East Germany.  The studies found that it could cost more than two trillion dollars over thirty years, raise taxes for six decades, and require that ten per cent of the South’s gross domestic product be spent in the North for the foreseeable future.” That does not bode well for reunification but, rather, for retaining the status-quo.

Harden tries to put a spin on Shin Dong-hyuk’s current life (with time spent each year in South Korea and the United States) and his prospects for the future.  Although everyone who reads Escape from Camp 14 will cheer him on, Shin’s journey is far from over.

Blaine Harden: Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
Viking, 205 pp., $26.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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