His name was Shin Dong-hyuk, and his legs had been mutilated by electrified barbed wire as he crawled over the smoking corpse of a fellow prisoner to escape North Korea’s most notorious — and previously inescapable — political prison camp.
Shin’s existence in the camp and his escape to the unknown world beyond its fences is the remarkable and harrowing tale that former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden recounts in spare, unadorned prose in “Escape From Camp 14.”
North Korea is arguably the most insulated, repressive nation on Earth, a dystopia with a vast gulag imprisoning 200,000 people, according to Amnesty International. The gulag’s most feared prison is “Total Control Camp 14,” where Shin was born and narrowly survived, and from which he eventually fled. He is believed to be the only person ever to escape. North Korean defectors in Seoul were agog when they learned of his feat.
In Camp 14, children are punished for the political sins of their fathers. Hunger is so omnipotent that every prisoner behaves like “a panicked animal” at mealtimes. Teachers at the camp school beat students to death for minor infractions. Medieval torture devices are employed in dungeon-like underground cells. And human relationships are so degraded that prisoners inform on family members.
While Shin’s story has been told before, Harden tells it well. He also corrects errors in earlier accounts, revealing that it was Shin himself who informed camp authorities of a planned escape by his mother and brother — information that led to their execution. That Shin would snitch on his own family underscores how the camp corrupts values. It also highlights the troubling fact that those with the grit and determination to survive dire circumstances can sometimes make for poor humans. But here is where Harden’s account excels: He neither paints Shin as a hero nor depicts his survival as a triumph of the spirit. Shin suffers brutalities and is brutalized in the process.
After his escape, Shin encountered itinerant gangs scrabbling to survive in North Korea’s starving hinterland, corrupt border guards, Chinese farmers who exploit the labor of desperate refugees and “brokers” who smuggle people out of North Korea for profit. One of the few sympathetic figures in the book is “Uncle,” a mysteriously respected senior prisoner who nursed Shin back to health after his hideous torture — at age 13 — in an underground cell. Shin does not know, nor does Harden speculate upon, uncle’s identity.
By the book’s close, it is depressingly unclear whether Shin has been able to nourish his stunted soul while dividing his time between the United States and South Korea. Suffering post-traumatic stress, he drifts through life, often tells lies, doesn’t communicate well and cannot maintain a relationship.
The book is also a useful primer on recent developments in the the Hermit Kingdom. Harden explains how primitive capitalism has spread nationwide as Pyongyang’s elite has lost its iron-fisted control of the economy. He also documents the porousness of the China-Korea border. What he does not explain — and what remains a mystery to many North Korea watchers — is why only 21,000 defectors have come South in the past six decades.
A few recent books have cast light on North Korea. Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” proved that there are “normal” people in the country. B.R. Myers’s “The Cleanest Race” revealed that a racist, ultra-nationalist ideology underpins what is misleadingly labeled a communist regime. But almost no books by North Koreans have emerged, with the exception of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” by Kang Chol Hwan. President George W. Bush was so moved by this defector’s tale of life in the state labor camps that he invited Kang to the White House. While the horrors of the Russian gulag, Nazi genocide and Cambodian mass murders have been amply documented, North Korea’s grisly conditions remain shadowy and under-publicized. In depicting the depravity of North Korean prison life, Harden’s book is an important portrait of man’s inhumanity to man.
, a Seoul-based reporter, is the author of “To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea 1951” and “Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950.”