Monday, April 2, 2012
Author: Blaine Harden
Publisher: Viking (Penguin)
Pub. Date: March 29, 2012
The subject of North Korea has been such an interesting source of reading and information to me for a while now, so my interest was definitely peaked when I found out about Escape From Camp 14. Shin Dong-Hyuk, whose life Escape chronicles, was born and raised in one of North Korea's rarely talked about labor camps, Camp 14. He is the only person known to have escaped a labor camp (and defected from North Korea) who actually was born into the camp. As bad as life is in that country, life in the camps is truly a torturous, if not deadly, life sentence. Their existence denied by the North Korean government (despite satellite pictures that prove their existence), the camps resemble the Nazi concentration camps. Raised like animals, children are taught to distrust everyone including family. Shin grew up despising his family who he viewed as competition for food. He was rewarded for snitching on others in the camp and was often tasked with contributing to the beating of a fellow peer. As much as North Korea brainwashes their citizens about their government, the children in the camp aren't even taught about that. Shin wasn't aware of actual civilization. In the camps, Shin witnessed horror after horror including the executions of his mother and brother.
Eventually, in search of food, Shin is finally motivated to risk his life to escape the camp. That leads to his eventual defection from North Korea through China, South Korea, and later the United States. He works with some human rights groups after his escape, but Shin's adjustment to civilized life isn't easy either. And despite the fact that he often witnessed or took part in savage behavior without any emotional attachment, these feelings start to plague him as he assimilates to western culture.
Escape From Camp 14 is a short book and easily accessible even for those who don't read much non-fiction. Probably the only complaint I have about this book is "type" for the chapter headings (I called it font but my graphic designer husband corrected me) made me feel like it was a children's sci-fi book rather than a serious sociological non-fiction. (No offense to the person who chose it... my husband didn't necessarily agree with me!) Nevertheless, I think its brevity and easily readable nature will attract readers who have some interest but aren't into reading more dense, heavily involved books.
Though this is the story of Shin Dong-Hyuck (written by Blaine Harden who initially wrote about Shin in the Wall Street Journal), it was also a telling non-fiction about the effects of propaganda (or media control) on a population; it was also fascinating to watch someone who was raised to not have emotions and to prey on other humans to learn to trust others and experience love and compassion. (Though extremely rare, this experience starts for him prior to his escape from the labor camp and probably had a big part in his motivation to escape). It seems incredibly significant to me to see the enormous effect this can have on the human spirit even at its lowest emotional state. Surprisingly, one of the parts that was the most emotional for me (maybe because I tried to block my emotions for the really horrifying stuff) was the difficulty North Korean defectors have with assimilating to the culture in South Korea or the U.S. because of mental health issues that arise, adjusting to the dynamics of a civilized society, and extreme guilt, paranoia, and feelings of absolute worthlessness.
Right now in our world there are labor camps where adults and children are being enslaved, starved, and beaten to death and it's rarely talked about. Escape From Camp 14 is an important human rights book that sheds light on this topic as well as on the plights of the individuals who are brave and lucky enough to escape the totalitarian regime.
I am fortunate to be able to offer a giveaway of this book! All you need to do is fill out the form below. The winner will be announced on Saturday, April 14th.