Escape from Camp 14: North Korea's Prison Camps Under Scrutiny

Published in 2012, Escape from Camp 14 tells the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, the first known person born in a North Korean political prison camp to have escaped. Journalist Blaine Harden chronicles Shin’s journey leading up to his escape and his subsequent adjustment to life in both South Korea and the United States. A New York Times bestseller, Shin and Blaine have worked together to shed light on the abhorrent conditions in these camps and the countless human rights violations that occur on a daily basis. From starvation to forced labour and torture, the list of violations is seemingly endless. However, what makes Escape from Camp 14 a truly compelling read is the way in which the book does not glorify its subject. Rather, Shin is presented as a product of the camp –he tells of his struggles adapting to life outside and the impact the camp has had on his upbringing and character. For instance, from an early age Shin knew to look upon his mother without love, as the camp was not a place for emotion. Within the confines of Camp 14, family was nothing more than competition for food.

Drawing upon interviews conducted with Shin over an extended period of time, Harden contextualises Shin’s testimony with those of other defectors as well as widely accepted claims made by non-governmental organisations and the media. This allows for what is arguably the most holistic understanding of life in North Korean prison camps to date. Those born within the confines of a prison camp are de-humanised from birth—Shin had no qualms snitching on fellow children or adults in order to receive increased food rations and the promise of less beatings. Stealing food resulted in harsh beatings and punishments, which were often distributed to people for reasons unknown to them. Shin informed on his mother and brother’s plans to escape in the hopes of preferential treatment, but this resulted in him being detained in an underground prison for three months and being beaten and tortured within an inch of his life. The book contains diagrams of the brutality inflicted upon Shin in his time of imprisonment, including the way in which Shin was held above an open fire during his interrogation.

Escape from Camp 14 sheds light on the daily workings of political prison camps, and surprises the reader with more than the day-to-day brutality and violence inflicted upon human beings. Readers would not be surprised to learn that those born within the confines of the camp know nothing of the outside world. Perhaps more surprising however, is the fact that those within the camp remained unaware of the chronic famine that plagued North Korea during the mid to late 1990s. For prisoners within the camp, chronic food shortages were neither new, nor did they show signs of rectification in the distant future. What’s more, the fact that those born in Camp 14 knew very little (if anything at all) about the Kim family struck me as very surprising. What has been presented to the wider world as one of the most controlling dictatorships in existence does not play a role in the lives of many detained within political prison camps. Those in Camp 14 who do know about North Korean politics, many of whom are ex-government officials, are bound by the same rules as the other prisoners, and so conversation is limited to such an extent that their knowledge is seldom passed on to fellow prisoners.

Amongst many other crucial revelations, the book highlights the perceived apathy of the global community and of South Korean society in particular –with regard to the removal of North Korean political prison camps. The South Korean government has implemented several schemes in order to facilitate the integration of North Korean defectors including subsidised accommodation, job training, and education. Defectors are taken to a transition centre where they are slowly introduced to daily life in South Korea, and this involves an introduction to things which many take for granted –hot water, electricity, television sets, and more. With a perhaps overly simplistic portrayal of South Korean society, Harden paints the state to be a success-driven capitalist machine where failure is simply unacceptable. While the picture painted is perhaps an overly negative one; it serves to highlight issues of transition faced by many defectors.

Shin, like many other defectors, has battled depression following his escape from Camp 14. He is now able to come to terms with what occurred within the confines of Camp 14. Stating that he is only now truly aware of emotions, Shin must deal with the guilt caused by his actions during times when survival was the only thing on his mind. Shin has undergone extensive dental reconstruction following years of decay, and his growth has been stunted- both consequences of a lifetime of chronic malnutrition.

Escape from Camp 14 has brought to the fore issues many of us have been aware of, though perhaps the extent of which has escaped us. Whilst impossible to know the true inner-workings of life in North Korean political prison camps, the experiences described by Shin and dictated to Harden parallel those of other defectors. Shin has not portrayed himself as a hero; he has told a story that he obviously finds so shameful, the reader has no choice but to believe it is true.

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