Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book Review: Escape from Camp 14

Title: Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
Author: Blaine Harden
eBook: 224 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult (March 29, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0670023329
ISBN-13: 978-0670023325

Escape from Camp 14 tells the incredible story of a young North Korean man who boldly and narrowly escaped from the total control labor camp where he was born and raised. Shin Dong-hyuk's startlingly account presents the world with an almost unbelievable yet remarkably honest story starting with his heart-wrenching upbringing to his immigration to the States. Former Washington Post correspondent Blaine Harden captures a truly unique testimony hammered out from Shin's own 2007 Korean-language memoir and numerous personal interviews with Shin and other refugees. The spark that motivated Shin's desire to leave his torturous, yet only, home might surprise you.

The story begins with Shin's subjection to torture and subsequent witness of the deaths of his mother and older brother. Gruesome, it aptly sets the mood for the unspeakable life he lived behind the walls and electrified fence that lined the camp. It's precisely his blood relation to known defectors during the Korean War that borne him from an arranged reward marriage from a sort of "original sin" stained couple serving in the camp. This coupling, though, precluded Shin from ever being capable of any real redemption. Having born and reared within the confines of the camp and minimally educated at the guard-run school, the ideological brain-washing that the rest of the North Korean population experienced in primary school was curiously absent and instead replaced with sometimes fatal capital punishment and unquestionable subordinated obedience. Because Shin had no outside comparison to his desolate reality, he lived life largely without ever wanting to leave. More sickening, though, was the daily routine of physical beatings, fear-inducing rule enforcement, and constant murder and rape that he witnessed and accepted as commonplace.

When one combines a sheltered mockery of education, a total lack of media (both state-run and international) and an brutally oppressive guard force fostering competition amongst prisoners, this almost powder-keg environment was a proving ground for mindless physical labor and unwavering fear. Shin's revelation of knowledge of a life outside the labor came not from a distant relative, nor a smuggler, radio broadcast or even a religious leader. He heard a rumor of a land were meat was grilled, varied and plentiful. Though he didn't know where this fabled country was, constant hunger drove him to try his luck elsewhere. He is one of the few successful refugees who did not procure escape through a broker. What happened when he gained access outside of the camp is even more extraordinary.

Shin's story is amazing, simply put. The book is incredibly moving and unsentimentally objective. A possible weakness in the narrative is that the book is limited to Shin's own experience whereas Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy charts several diverse stories at once; Shin's experience was not typical of most North Korean refugees. This is hardly a knock at Harden's book as it proudly stands as a brilliant account of the world's most despicable regime's nightmare of a labor camp. Graphic at times but always moving, pay heed to these atrocities by at least hearing him out. Shin's is an original story that deserves your attention. You won't soon forget it.


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