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A Life Sentence, Then a New Life: Book review of Blaine Harden's "Escape From Camp 14"

Melanie Kirkpatrick

There is no dispute about the existence of the North Korean gulag. Anyone with a computer and access to the Internet can go to Google Earth and zoom in on a string of vast prison camps located in the unforgiving, mountainous center of the country. The U.S. State Department and international human-rights organizations put the number of inmates at about 200,000. As many as one million North Koreans are believed to have perished there. Only three people are known to have escaped.

One is Shin Dong-hyuk, a young man who defied the odds and managed to flee, first from the gulag and then from North Korea itself. He made it to China and eventually reached safety in South Korea in 2006. His remarkable story is told by Blaine Harden, a former Washington Post reporter, in Escape From Camp 14. It is a searing account of one man’s incarceration and personal awakening in North Korea’s highest-security prison.

The book is also an indictment of the barbaric regime that rules North Korea, the world’s most repressive totalitarian state. Mr. Shin is roughly the same age as Kim Jong Eun, who took over as North Korea’s dictator after his father’s death in December. Mr. Harden notes that the ruler and Mr. Shin “personify the antipodes of privilege and privation in North Korea, a nominally classless society where, in fact, breeding and bloodlines decide everything.”

Mr. Shin was born in Camp 14, the offspring of two inmates who had been rewarded for good behavior. The prison authorities assigned his mother to his father and allowed them to sleep together five nights a year. The boy barely knew his father, living with his mother and older brother until he reached his early teens, when he was moved to a dormitory. Mr. Shin told the author that he had no experience of maternal love. He viewed his mother not as a source of affection but as a competitor for the limited amount of food that was available to them.

Prisons in North Korea are known for starvation-level rations, backbreaking work and brutal treatment. But unlike most prisoners, who, if they survive, at least have the possibility of release, everyone at Camp 14 is serving a life sentence. The camp ranks as a “total control zone,” where prisoners are deemed “irredeemable.”

Mr. Shin’s unforgivable crime was being born of “bad seed.” His father was sent to Camp 14 because two of his brothers had fled south during the Korean War. Under an edict laid down by Kim Il Sung, founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the crimes of such traitors must be paid for by their relatives, “through three generations.” For most of Mr. Shin’s life, Mr. Harden notes, he accepted that his tainted lineage meant that he deserved the suffering inflicted on him at Camp 14—“he believed the guards’ preaching about original sin.”

For children at Camp 14, schooling consisted mainly of memorizing the camp’s 10 rules. Rule No. 3: “Anyone who steals or conceals foodstuffs will be shot immediately.” When Mr. Shin was in the first grade, his teacher discovered five kernels of corn in a classmate’s pocket. The girl was required to kneel down in front of the class. Mr. Shin and his classmates watched as their teacher beat her to death. She was 6 years old.

At 14, he was forced to witness two other executions: those of his mother and brother. They had been arrested for violating Rule No. 1: “Do not try to escape.” His mother was hanged, and his brother was shot. The only emotion Mr. Shin felt was anger. He blamed them for his interrogation and torture after their arrests. Guards bound his hands and feet, hoisted him into the air by means of a hook pierced into his abdomen and dangled him over an open fire.

His escape from Camp 14—in 2005, when he was 22—came about because of a chance encounter with a new inmate, a man who had held a high-ranking government position. The two men shared a desperation to get out of the camp, whatever the risk, and plotted to reach China, a country Mr. Shin had never heard of but one where his friend had relatives. His friend, though, was killed during their escape over the electric fence that surrounded the camp; Mr. Shin crawled over his corpse to freedom. Thanks to luck as well as to skills he had honed at Camp 14—stealing, lying and fighting—he managed to travel to the border and cross into China by himself. In that country, he was helped by ethnic Koreans, local Christians and, eventually, a South Korean journalist who escorted him to the South Korean consulate in Shanghai.

Parts of Escape From Camp 14 can be painful to read. Mr. Harden spares no detail of Mr. Shin’s torment, physical or psychological. He writes in a direct, matter-of-fact style that puts the horrors he is relating in dark relief. He is equally explicit in describing Mr. Shin’s difficulties in learning to succeed in a free society—his nightmares, his inability to hold down a job, his troubles making friends or placing trust in anyone. There is “no easy way for Shin to adapt to life outside the fence,” he writes. Mr. Harden quotes him as saying, “I am evolving from being an animal.” Today he is living in Seoul and trying to raise the world’s awareness of his countrymen’s plight.

The effects of North Korea’s gulag extend beyond the lives of those unfortunate men, women and children who live and die there. The threat of being sent to the campsand the monumental human suffering that impliesterrorizes every North Korean. It is one of the brutal control mechanisms by which the Kim family regime stays in power.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International reported last year that satellite photographs showed new construction inside the prison camps. As the world watches, North Korea apparently is planning to increase the number of inmates incarcerated there.

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