North Korea, Prison Camp; Continent: Asia

Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

  • The phrase “First World problems” should come to mind with most of what goes wrong in your day after you read this account
  • 210 pages (197 including the Afterword which is worth reading)

This story peers into North Korea and its Kim family rule. North Korea closely manages the access it offers Western journalists, so Camp 14 effectively didn’t exist in the media prior to the stunning escape described here. The camp is visible on satellite images, however.

The Prison Camp

Shin Dong-hyuk is born in Camp 14 to two prisoners allowed by camp guards to have sexual relations as a reward for good behavior. They have no other relationship except as parents to two prison-born children, Shin and his older brother. The guards raise him and all the other children born of similar circumstances to trust only them, not family. Consequently, he views his mother and brother as competitors for scarce food and potential tattlers for misbehavior.

In fact, his mother and brother not reporting his minor transgressions to the guards, as they are planning their own escape. Escape attempts never succeed from Camp 14, and anyone who might have had anything to do with an escape attempt is killed. So, when he overhears their plans while pretending to be asleep, he has only one reaction driven by self-preservation: report them. The two are executed in the prison yard, in front of everyone including him and his father.

Only later, in his teens, does escape start to sound interesting to him. Severely hurt by guards and prisoners alike following the executions of his mother and brother, battered Shin is assigned to share an underground cell with a prisoner known only as “Uncle”. Uncle nurses him back to some degree of health, and while he does so, he tells him stories of the outside world. Not much sticks except descriptions of food Uncle gives to the starving teenager, but these are enough to convince him that conditions must be better elsewhere.

Eventually, he meets another older prisoner from a more exalted social circle in Pyongyang. He, too, has wonderful stories of food. He knows enough of the local geography to find their way to China. The two begin to plan an escape together.

The Escape

Shin’s hardship in the prison camp is enough to engage a reader’s compassion, but the survival story really gets going after his escape. North Korean winters are harsh, and no one within its borders is eating well except for a few elite in the capital. Immediately, Shin notices some important differences between prison camp life and the outside world. For example, people on the outside freely assemble and sometimes laugh. They exchange certain kinds of paper for goods and services, Shin’s first observation of money. For someone this unfamiliar with the world, some remarkable coincidences have to occur to allow Shin’s survival and journey through North Korea, China and South Korea.

One of the many interesting aspects of Shin’s story is the personal experience of China’s attitude toward its impoverished neighbor. Many ethnic North Koreans live just on the Chinese side of the border at the time of Shin’s escape. However, aiding refugees from their home country invites trouble for these residents who are already working hard not to be noticed. China can’t entirely look the other way when North Koreans flee to its relative prosperity because it likes having North Korea as a buffer between it and decidedly pro-West South Korea. China therefore wants North Korea to continue to exist as a separate state, something it is more likely to do if hungry North Koreans stay within their own borders. So, if a border family originally from North Korea has been tacitly allowed to remain in China despite the formal policy of shipping North Koreans home, then that family doesn’t dare assist any other North Koreans in their flight to China. Instead, Shin finds some Chinese farmers at the border more welcoming, as North Koreans represent a source of cheap labor.

Happy Endings Are a Work In Progress

South Korea turns out not necessarily to be the Promised Land. South Koreans aren’t fully welcoming to North Koreans. Many South Koreans view them as unrefined bumpkins unready for entry into a First World-culture like South Korea. Others see them as a drain on the national economy, for many North Koreans are unable to support themselves with their existing skill set. Shin takes up residence in charity-sponsored housing and struggles to fit in, a challenge even for North Koreans who are not so obviously suffering the post-traumatic stress syndrome Shin endures.

Shin described a few versions of this story to the journalist who wrote this book because he didn’t trust the writer at first. Coming from the paranoid culture of Camp 14, the only possible initial posture could have been distrust. He lied regularly to people, especially if they seemed to interested in him or their motivation for interacting with him seemed unclear.

This book is a quick read with a writing style that is meant to shock you, although the author really doesn’t need to dress up any of the events described to achieve that end. One is left wondering how North Korea still exists on the world map in its present form. How the Kim family successfully clamps down external influences so surely that North Koreans largely believe that South Korea is the poorer neighbor state. How, even in a heavily militarized culture like North Korea, some snacks and a few cigarettes are tempting to hungry border guards who are supposed to shoot instead. These days, China gets most of the headlines coming out of Asian news agencies, but stop to consider North Korea. You can kill this book in a few hours, but you will need longer than that to mull over what it has to say about one of the world’s least-accessible nations.

Photo Credit: Bernd Müller, 2006. Source: Image of the border between North Korea and China.


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