Escape from Camp 14 : one man's remarkable odyssey from North Korea to freedom in the West

by Blaine Harden

Hardcover, 2012

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Viking, 2012.

Description

Twenty-six years ago, Shin Dong-hyuk was born inside Camp 14, one of five sprawling political prisons in the mountains of North Korea. This is the gripping, terrifying story of his escape from this no-exit prison-- to freedom in South Korea.

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
How do you miss something you don’t even know exists? Blaine Harden’s searing story of the life of North Korean prison camp escapee Shin Dong-hyuk asks this and other provocative questions while exposing the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il, his father before him and his son, presently. Born in a prison camp known as Camp 14, Shin and other children learn early on what to expect from life and loving parents are not in the mix:

”In the years after he escaped the camp, Shin learned that many people associate warmth, security, and affection with the words “mother,” “father,” and “brother.” That was not his experience. Guards taught him and other children in the camp that they were prisoners because of the “sins” of their parents. The children were told that while they should always be ashamed of their traitorous blood, they could go a long way toward “washing away” their inherent sinfulness by working hard, obeying the guards and informing on their parents. The tenth rule of Camp 14 said that a prisoner “must truly” consider each guard as his teacher. That made sense to Shin. As a child and as a teen, his parents were exhausted, distant and uncommunicative.” (Page 18)

So Shin did not spend his captivity regretting the absence of love, happiness or security because he had never experienced such things. He came to view his mother as a competitor for food, nothing more.

The book consists, for the most part, of a shocking, anguished testimony of the every day lives of camp prisoners. Children forced to eat rats and insects to stave off starvation, public executions, beatings, being tortured over hot coals and on and on. The brutality of this regime is mind-numbing and horrifying. To think that these forced labor camps have existed far longer than the Russian gulags or the Nazi death camps, with no end in sight is frightening.

Coupled with the narrative of the camp, Harden details the plight of the North Korean people in general, who experienced starvation on an immense scale in the 90s and simply cannot feed themselves because of harrowing policies and corruption by the military and the elite class in Pyongyang.

Shin’s escape from the camp, as he pushes himself up and over the dead body of his friend and fellow escapee, which is splayed over the electrified barbed wire, is absolutely riveting. That he is able to forge ahead, on his own, with no knowledge of the outside world, and make his way to China, and eventually, South Korea, is a testament to his courage and tenacity. Those two qualities will be needed when he discovers that the transition to life outside of the camp is not as easy as he anticipated.

This is the third book I’ve read in the last twelve months about life in North Korea and a nice addition to Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy and Adam Johnson’s fictional account, The Orphan Master’s Son which offered the first indication for me, of the horror of life in the camps. Recommended for those concerned with human rights and able to tolerate the indignity of prison camp life.
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LibraryThing member labfs39
How do you assess the truthfulness of an unreliable narrator? The journalist, Blaine Harden, struggled with this question during his interviews with the subject, Shin Dong-hyuk, the only survivor of Camp 14 in North Korea to escape to the West. Harden believes he was able to ferret out the real story, and it's an incredible one.

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a high security forced labor camp, one that North Korea denies even exists. Google Earth proves otherwise. Shin's mother and father were awarded the right to conjugal visits as a recognition of their hard work, and paired at random. From this primitive union, Shin Dong-hyuk was born. Living in the same shack with his mother and brother, Shin was raised by the camp system. There was no sense of family or family loyalty. For as long as he can remember Shin was on his own, learning the system, how to manipulate it for more food, and how to survive hard labor. His entire youth was a blur of executions that everyone was forced to watch, torture, hunger, and a survival instinct like that of a starved wolf. Then someone from outside the camps is imprisoned with him, and tells Shin of amazing things about life outside the camp. Shin is incredulous, then determined to see for himself. He makes a harrowing escape, and eventually makes his way to the West.

The story is a page-turning horror of inhumanity and human rights abuses. It is also a fascinating look inside a very secret corner of North Korean reality. But what I found most intriguing was the mental and emotional state of Shin in the camp and his struggles to learn to think differently, to feel empathy, and to find a place for himself as a survivor: most fascinating, and most open to question. Shin originally told his stories to officials in different ways, cunningly using his camp skills to try and manipulate the system, to keep secrets, to dissemble. Unable to trust anyone, Shin went through a long period of post-traumatic stress. Three years after Shin's escape, Harden met the now 26 year old. Eager to bust open a political hot spot, Harden interviewed and met with Shin several times over a number of years, developing a relationship that Harden believes allowed him to get the real story.

Although I would highly recommend reading [Escape from Camp 14], I would even more highly recommend reading Barbara Demick's [Nothing to Envy] first. Demick's book is also about North Korean escapees, but she provides both historical and cultural landmarks that allow those of us not North Korean experts to place both books in context. Taken together, they provide a startling and damning portrayal of the North Korean regime and raise the question, in my mind at least, of how we can allow such human rights abuses to continue, simply because North Korea has no resources that we want and lies in the shadow of two powerful giants.
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LibraryThing member xuesheng
Fascinating, but disturbing true story about Shin Dong-hyuk who was born to political prisoners inside North Korea's Camp 14, a camp reserved for those deemed among the most dangerous to the ruling Kims. Although Shin never found out his mother's crime, his father's "crime" was to be the brother of men who fled the North at the end of the Korean war.

The camp is a horrific labor camp that shows no mercy and provides no nurture for a growing child. Shin sees his mother as competition for food. He is beaten and abused by his "teachers" who are nothing more than camp guards. He watches as the teacher beats a girl to death for stealing a few kernels of corn from the camp fields. He is encouraged and rewarded for reporting any rule infractions of other inmates, his parents and brother included. When his mother and brother escape, he watches their executions with no remorse, only anger that they caused the guards to brutally torture him in order to find out if he knew anything of their plan. (And Mr. Harden provides a vivid description of this brutal torture.)

In his 20s, Shin learns about the world outside the camps when a new prisoner arrives. This man was high up in the regime. but angered someone and now is a prisoner. As he educates Shin to life beyond the fence, together they plot their escape and journey to China. During the escape attempt, his friend is killed by the electric fence and Shin is able to climb over his body. Shin knows little about living in the real world, but he is able to use his camp skills of stealing and lying. He also has lucky timing since due to the famine, many North Koreans are wandering the countryside in search of work and food. With everything somehow falling into place, Shin finally makes it to China and eventually to Seoul and the US. Shin continues to struggle with the demons bred within the camp--he gives up often, cannot trust or maintain relationships. Mr Harden found it very hard to trust him while writing the book.

I think this is a book that everyone should read to understand what is happening in North Korea. It is also a book that fills me with fear when I think what it would be like to be a citizen of North Korean living with the knowledge that they are often one wrong step away from these camps.
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LibraryThing member matthew254
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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LibraryThing member LDVoorberg
I do not feel comfortable rating a book of nonfiction on such a serious topic.

Atrocity aside, what amazes me -- stemming from my reading -- is the human mind. Maslow was so right in many ways with his hierarchy. Humans require basic survival needs be met before anything else can develop. In Shin, I see how it was not until his food and shelter needs were secure was he able to deal with emotions. And by that time, the mind was so developed that dealing with emotions was extremely complicated. Fascinating.
Regarding North Korea: the story is not over, but hopefully there will soon be a turning point.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
This was another book, that while fascinating because I didn't have much knowledge of North Korea, but horrific as well. The subject matter was at times hard to read, to think that so many people are actually living like this is heartbreaking. Even those considered higher up in the hierarchy are not well off in comparison to the rest of the world, but they do have access to rice and blankets. The only family in any way profiting is the Kim dynasty, they of course have beautiful houses and yachts, quite frankly it is all sickening and I just can't understand a country that continually stands for this. The most worrisome thing is that North Korea has nuclear capabilities. Shin admits he is having a hard time adjusting psychologically and while I was reading this book I thought it could almost be retitled "The making of psychopaths and sociopaths. If and when this country is free and all these people are released from the prison camps I really do not see how they will at all adjust to the outside world. They have been taught not to feel love, to report on each other for gain, and really to not have any feelings at all. I find this almost as frightening as the country and prison camps themselves.… (more)
LibraryThing member xieouyang
This book caught my attention after reading a book review in the Wall Street Journal. It tells the story of Shin In Geun, a young North Korean who escaped and now lives in the U.S. but travels to South Korea often. What made his story more compelling than others of North Korean defectors, is that he was born and raised in a prison camp- so-called Camp 14 about 18 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Both his parents, and an older brother, were also prisoners in the camp. Their crime had been the escape of the father's brother to South Korea. Apparently it's common practice in the North Korean regime to imprison as suspects all the relatives of a defector, because they can't be trusted or perhaps were involved in the escape. Young Shin was born in the camp but there is little he knows or tells about his parents. Other than when he was 13 years old, he snitched to his teacher that both his mother and brother were planning to escape. As a consequence they are apprehended and killed. Of course, the cruelty of North Korea means that the son and the father, who are not implicated in the planned escape, are forced to watch the public hanging of the mother, and the execution by shooting of the brother. Young Shin does not feel any remorse, a reason he snitched on them is that would assure him a larger portion of food perhaps. Hunger is the driving force of all his actions, and those of all prisoners as well as most North Koreans it seems.

Conditions in the camp were brutal, typical of communist regimes or dictatorships that treat prisoners worse than animals. Prisoners are made to work long hours under iinhumane conditions, they can't trust anybody since they know another prisoner may turn them in. The shocking thing is that a lot of the experiences Shin has he sees them as normal- he is not exposed to anything else. His education is very limited, has no knowledge whatsoever of the outside world, does not have any feelings for anybody good or bad. There is no love or hate in him, just a desire to get food to satisfy his hunger.

After his escape, that is aided by a number of helpful coincidences, he has trouble adjusting to the civilized world. Although he appears to be doing OK so far, he continues to have a hard time fitting in.

Aside from the story, that is the main argument for reading this book, the writing seems rather forensic and very descriptive. The author is a newspaper correspondent and, obviously after reading this book, I don't classify as a literary person. It's worthwhile reading the book as it opens one's eyes to the real brutality of the North Korean regime, similar to that of a few other places whose leaders do not allow for dissent from the regime's views like, closer to us, Cuba.
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LibraryThing member CarolineNH
Wasn't really sure what to expect, but I'm pretty sure this wasn't it. Interesting story; included a lot of what life was like in the camps, and what life is like inside North Korea. The book seems *really* short, though, as if they took every opportunity and used every college kid's trick to make it longer. It seemed stretched but at the same time the story seemed as though it could have been longer and more filled out if the author had tried. It was more a summary of the time in the camp and the escape than a detailed memoir.… (more)
LibraryThing member BDartnall
This is a well written account of Shin Don-Hyuk, a young N Korean, and his harrowing existence in a political prisoner camp for the first 20- something years of his life; he was born IN the camp and knew nothing other than his miserable camp life. The journalist who interviewed him comes into his life story details intermittently to give historical context. Most of the time this helpful because- like so many others- I am not as knowledgeable on North Korean life / it's true economic state etc. However, these detours into North Korea, world history, (and later in the narrative), the efforts of human rights' groups, certainly lessened the suspense of Shin's story: would he escape? Would he survive? How would he adjust to a 21st century normal life in free capitalist countries? Recommended for older teens, especially as part of a larger study in totalitarian regimes, Asian politics, or human rights-concentration camps studies. Not a "happy" book, but definitely eye-opening, often instructive.… (more)
LibraryThing member presto
Shin Dong-Hyuk was born in Camp 14, a North Korean political prison/labour camp, a camp from which there is no release for its inmates, a camp with a strict and harsh regime,where there is little food, and where the work often results in early death. No one has escaped from Camp 14 or any other such camp, that is until Shin succeeded in early 2005, eventually making his way via China and South Korea to the US.

Escape From Camp 14 is his story as told to Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden. It details the inhuman existence that is life within Camp 14, where prisoners are pressured to inform on each other including their own family, where punishments are harsh and handed out at the whim of their superiors be they prison guards or fellow prisoners designated as supervisors. Life is cheap within Camp 14, beatings can be so extreme they result in death, there are regular public executions and possibly much more regular private executions. Anyone caught trying to escape is executed, and members of their family face reprisals. Born into such an existence Shen knew no other way of life, he knew nothing of the world outside of the camp, that is until he met a new inmate who gradually enlightened him, and fuelled his desire for escape.

This is an easy read in that the prose is fluent and very accessible, but it if far from an easy read when considering its content, the descriptions of life in Camp 14 do not make for comfortable reading. Harden eases the readers progress through Shin's harrowing account by regularly interspersing it with facts about life in North Korea, Korea's history and its relations with the rest of the world.

This is a story that deserves to be told, and that needs to be read. It is much more than a heart wrenching account of the terrible existence that is life in the North Korean prison camps. It raises questions about life in general in North Korea where the people are kept in awe of its leader Kim Jong-il (the proof copy I read was completed before the succession, the published edition will have been updated by the author), where they are kept in ignorance of the rest of the world, where they are told that they, the people of North Korea and their regime, are the envy of the world.

North Korea will not admit to the existence of these camps, but China, the US and the rest of the world knows they do exist and have existed for around half a century, and satellite images readily available on the Net clearly reveal them. But Shin's story raises more questions, notable about the difficulties of adapting to life in the free world for those raised under North Korea's repressive regime. Shin has not found it easy, and unlike the general populace of the country he has not been brainwashed.

Hopefully Shin's account will raise awareness of these North Korean prison camps, and of the deprivations of life in general in that country, and the difficulties of assimilation for those who do make it out of the country.
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LibraryThing member keristars
As I'm sure the case is for many readers of Escape from Camp 14, I came to the book after reading Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick and discovering a thirst to understand more about North Korea.

I wasn't really planning on reading the book when I first heard of it, because while I do want to know more about North Korea, to try and understand what's happening and what it is like to live there, it seemed that Shin's story might be too much for me to handle beyond the abstract. Happily (or not so, considering the subject), I succumbed to impulse and got the book from the library, then proceeded to read it in the space of one very long evening. It was both easier and harder to read than I had expected, but I'm glad I did.

There's not much that I wish to dwell on with what Shin's life was like in Camp 14, except that I'm still not sure I can really understand what it's like to be treated like an animal and to have no good emotions - just hunger and paranoia, and I'm so grateful that I haven't had to understand it. I am happy that Shin was able to escape, but also mournful that even after leaving the camp, he still suffers the effects of it.

One thing that strikes me about Shin's story, particularly once he came to the United States in 2008/2009, is that even if the camps were somehow dismantled and the prisoners saved and allowed to live in a free society, there would be so much work and time involved in teaching them to feel safe and secure, and I can see how that would be a hurdle that many would consider too high to bother. Just as many South Koreans feel about North Korea and North Koreans now (according to both Demick's book and Harden's descriptions of the South Korean views of North Korea, the rejoining of the two countries, and the refugees).

I think this is an important book and one that I hope more people read, if only to bring more attention to the matter. Shin had a lot of luck, but hundreds of thousands of other people didn't and won't. I am glad, I think, that I read it after reading Nothing to Envy, because that book helped prepare me just a bit for exactly how horrible living in North Korea these last 50 years can be, so Escape from Camp 14 wasn't so completely troubling for me that I couldn't finish it.
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LibraryThing member jjvors
Escape from Camp 14 is a story of an improbable escape from both a high security camp in the North Korean gulag by an improbable person--a young man reared in prison with no knowledge of life outside the camp. The camp was so secure that only two prisoners had escaped in its 50 years of existance--and both from less secure areas.

The young man, Shin, had no knowledge of North Korea, let alone the outside world. He had no motivation to escape until he learned there was an abundance of food outside the camp, and outside North Korea. His perspective is best illustrated by the impression North Korea made upon him when he escaped: he was amazed at people's freedom to laugh and talk without being beaten.

Highly recommended, to help anyone understand North Korean better.
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LibraryThing member csayban
North Korea is a country separated from the 21st century by the choice of its corrupt and brutal leadership. Most of the population is starving and all of the population lives in fear of the political prison camps where hundreds of thousands of North Korean citizens are tortured and killed daily. There is no hope for justice. There is no speaking out. And there is little hope of escape. And nobody who has been born into the political prison camps has ever escaped to the west and told the tale. Nobody, that is, until Shin Dong-hyuk.

“I am evolving from being an animal,’ he said. ‘But it is going very, very slowly. Sometime I try to cry and laugh like other people, just to see if it feels like anything. Yet tears don’t come. Laughter doesn’t come.”

The escape of Shin Dong-hyuk is miraculous not just because of the ruthless nature of the prison camp he escaped from and the draconian authoritarian state that North Korea is, but because of the shear naivety and blind luck Shin benefited from in order to get himself out. Born to parents who were inmates of the prison, Shin had no concept of an outside world, knew nothing about his own country – much less the western world – until he was in his 20s. He had no political axe to grind. He only wanted to taste freedom.

The senseless brutality of North Korean camps punctuates Shin’s journey in Escape from Camp 14. Much of the story is of the unthinkable things he had to do just to survive. But his story is as much about his mental awakening as it is about his physical escape. Like being dropped on another world or brought here from another age, Shin has to contend with nearly as much difficulty learning how to exist in a free society as he did trying to survive the camps.

While Harden does a good job of painting the world Shin Dong-hyuk lived in and what he had to do to get out, Escape from Camp 14 fails to really get to know its central character. In spite of Harden’s best efforts, there is much about Shin that is still unknown. Perhaps even he doesn’t yet know the answers himself, but ultimately the narration is cold and the final chapters don’t really provide a resolution to Shin’s journey. Maybe that is asking too much of Shin at this point. However, it would have been nice to see Harden fill in some of those blanks.

Ultimately, Escape from Camp 14 fulfills its primary goal of shinning a light on the plight of a people who most of the world have ignored or forgotten. Shin’s escape provides a telling description of how even innocent children are living in concentration camps in spite of international treaties forbidding it. While it doesn’t possess the emotional punch of Elie Wiesel’s Night, it still screams to be heard, if for the simple fact that these camps still exist! For that reason alone, I think Escape from Camp 14 is worth reading even though the story fell short of being great.
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LibraryThing member hjvanderklis
Blaine Harden interviewed Shin Dong-hyuk, born in 1983 inside Camp 14, one of five largest and most cruelsome political prisons in the mountains of North Korea. Luck was on his side when Shin managed to escape the camp, survive in North Korea, cross the Chinese border, survive on the other side and eventually migrate to South Korea and the USA. Where Shin’s earlier memoir flopped, this version, enriched with maps, drawings, history and interview output from others definitely got the attention of many readers around the globe. Camp 14, though visible on Google Earth, and yet unreachable from the outside world. It is located about 55 miles north of Pyongyang. Shin’s story is cruel and reminds some readers of the Nazi concentration camps in World War II, or the Siberian Gulagh camps in the USSR era. A complete control camp, suicide an serious option for those that can’t stand the physical and psychological pressures from long working days, endless punishments and other ways to repent from sins against the Kim Jong Il dynasty.
No other born in a North Korean political prison camp ever has escaped and survived before Shin. And while his escape may be filled with luck with other relatives and a fellow that would travel with him dead, Shin’s story is unique. Blaiden’s additions also share insights from the difficulties to socialize, get customed to the western world, trust people and build professional and private relationships.
Warning: Escape from Camp 14 exposes the cruelty underpinning the North Korean regime and won’t leave you innocent.
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LibraryThing member Carolee888
‘Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West’ by Blaine Harden is a harrowing biography of a person born and raised in a political camp north of Pyongyang, North Korea.

Shin-In-Geun’s earliest memory is watching his mother and brother executed. He now blames himself for it. He was only four years old but he was trained to not trust his family but to be a snitch. So when he figured out that the two were planning an escape, he turned them in. He saw executions often in the camp. The guards stuffed stones in the prisoner's mouth so they couldn’t make a noise and made them wear a hood.

His food was meager, corn porridge, cabbage soup, and pickled cabbage. When he and the other boys were allowed, rats, snakes and insects that they caught were added to their diet. One girl in his class was beaten to death for stealing five grains of rice. When he was school age, he slept on the floor of a dormitory and learned counting and more obedience to the camp’s rules. No geography, no history, in fact he grew up thinking that his world was the same everywhere. He didn’t even know about the ruling dynasty of Northern Korea, the Kims.

If he thought that camp life was all there was, why did he escape? Not for freedom, I think you would be very surprised to find out why he squeezed through an electric wire fence.

How did he first find out about the outside world? He had no sense of family, when and how did he learn of that? This is a riveting story, a true story and makes you think of what a different world it is in North Korea and even worse, in one of the camps. I could talk all day about this book, there is so much more to it.

I cannot recommend this book high enough for an eye opening true story from the other side of the world.
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LibraryThing member henaresf
Having read Barbara Deming's "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea," I was left with a less strong impression by "Escape from Camp 14," although I think "Escape" shows more vividly the lasting damage endured by those who have lived under the North Korean system. It's also astounding to see how cruel people can really be to each other ... and how much small kindnesses end up mattering so much.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sullywriter
Born in a North Korean gulag, Shin endured its inhumanity for twenty-three years before escaping, making his way to China, South Korea, and eventually the United States. His experiences seem like something from a dystopian novel but they are all too real and shared by hundreds of thousands of other North Koreans. The degradations and brutalities Shin suffered must be true because they are too horrific to imagine.… (more)
LibraryThing member Capfox
There's a definite draw to reading books about North Korea, if only because trying to understand the scope of the horrors that people can manage to perpetrate on each other is inherently interesting and valuable. And possibly more than anywhere on the planet over the past few decades, that's been the role of North Korea: to show how badly a society can misshape itself in hard, uncaring, terrible ways. I've read a few books about the place over the past few years, fiction and non-fiction, and I doubt I'm done with this one. This wasn't the best, but it's an interesting addition.

Escape from Camp 14 gives you exactly what it says on the cover: it's the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who was born to parents in a prison camp for political prisoners. You see, the policy is that you punish political prisoners for generations, so people are born, grow up, live their whole lives, and then die in these camps. Camp 14 is a particularly bad one. The book details Shin's life growing up there, his weak relationships with his parents, his attitude towards the authorities and other prisoners, the brutalities and torture he suffered, and then eventually, his escape from the camp, his circuitous route to South Korea and then to the US, and his struggles to adjust to life outside.

My feeling when going through the book (and I listened to the audiobook here, read by Blaine Harden, the author) was that Harden decided for the most part to leave the prose unadorned and journalistic, and let the power and brutality of Shin's biography just carry the reader through. But I don't really think this was the most effective choice; the horror of the situation is perhaps unchanged by it, but it does feel like you're at more of a remove from Shin's tale than I'd have expected. Some parts are just glossed by, which may be just the amount of detail Harden could get, but I feel like the story could have been more affecting, given the core material.

That said, like, it is still really powerful as is. Some of it is the terrible stuff that, somehow, I end up expecting - the lack of food, the killing of one of his fellow students by a teacher for a trivial offense, the generalized amorality among the prisoners at the camp, who are trained to basically value none of their relationships and confess everything immediately. But much of it is still surprising, too - what ends up happening to Shin's mother and brother, for instance. Or why he wants to escape the camp; he's not motivated by a desire for freedom. Or the nature of some of the working conditions in the camp. Or how once Shin is out and in South Korea, he's different from the other North Koreans and tries to avoid them. He's not been indoctrinated to the Kim family mystique, because why bother? And his attitude towards life and personal relationships and how hard it's been to change was also really enlightening.

I do really feel like this is an important book, and I hope many people hear about his story. It's horrifying how widespread this is in the country, and how little we are doing to change it, even if I don't have a great suggestion about what we could do to bring about change. I think it could have been somewhat better presented, but Shin's life story is gripping enough that it doesn't lose too much. Just don't come to this one with happy thoughts. They won't last too long.
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LibraryThing member Periodista
Whew. No words seem sufficient. Harrowing. Suspenseful. Triumph of the human spirit. And Blaine Harden, a longtime Washington Post writer, keeps it moving along even while filling some of the recent historical developments--that is, why and how so many North Koreans have been able to cross the border into China in recent decades. How the pipleline works. How NKers are able to move around among the Korean population of China. The process once North Koreans get to South Korea. Why former SK president's "sunshine policy" was kind of dumb (ask for *something* , however slight in return for food, meetings, etc.)

Shin's early years--born in the prison camp where his parents would live out their lives--are just so traumatic and harrowing that I don't know if this book would be recommended for a high school library. Poor Shin--great that he has gotten psych care, even in South Korea, but I hope he is being studied also to expand our understanding of early trauma and PTSD. How can anyone growing up with so much trauma, so little love ever turn out ... right? I have read other books about North Korea (including the Aquarium), Nazi concentration camps, the Russians and Chinese gulags, Vietnam's re-education but I can't think of another individual with so few emotional foundations to draw on. If this camp were liberated tomorrow would most of the occupants become murderous abusive sociopaths?

My major criticism, why I'll knock off one star, has to do with the dearth of info on the lives of North Koreans in SK. I knew of course that they always have a hard adjustment and South Koreans don't want to associate with them ... but is Shin unusual in not wanting to associate with other NKers in SK? They all must live with such terrible burdens of guilt about those they left behind. I'm shocked that Shin's earlier book only sold 500 or 800 copies in SK; that begs for more info about SK attitudes toward North Koreans at home and to the North.

Then there are tantalizing comments that I suppose Blaine didn't want to expand on from fear of hurting Shin's feelings: that Shin can't distinguish between constructive criticism and betrayal.
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LibraryThing member A_Reader_of_Fictions
I wrote my Independent Study senior year of college about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's writings. One of the things I read was his Gulag Archipelago. For some reason, which I really don't want to consider too much (this may have something to do with my love for dystopias too), I have always been fascinated with books about the concentration camps and the gulag system. When I read in the blurbs sent to me by Penguin that the North Korean camps make those pale in comparison, I knew that I had to read this book.

The scale of the camps is simply staggering. Shin attended a rudimentary school with approximately 1,000 other children. This is mindboggling, considering that only the children of camp marriages were allowed any form of education within the camp. Marriages were used as a reward for the hardest workers, so just imagine how many people might be in this one camp, of which there were many more. And of all of those people, Shin is still the only person known to have escaped and survived.

Perhaps even more startling are all of the other facts about North Korea. It seems as though, horrendous as life can be in the camps, it's not actually that much better on the outside. In some instances, there may be more reliable food in the camps.

Harden did a great job with this. He includes a lot of details about North Korea in general, whatever he's managed to learn, that add context to Shin's story. Personally, I knew practically nothing about North Korea beforehand; apparently, there's only so much to know, because the North Koreans really don't want anyone else to know anything. Plus, he emphasizes the limits of our knowledge of North Korea and of Shin. There is often no way to corroborate Shin's tale, because he is the only one known to have escaped from a no-release camp.

[Random comment, but I really will never understand why photo inserts in history books/biographys are always put in the middle of a chapter. Hundreds of pages, between any of which the photos could go, but they always put them in the middle of a chapter (actually, usually a sentence), necessitating a back and forth shuffle through the pages. Why not just put them after a chapter and let me flip through the book the way I usually do?]

Although Escape from Camp 14 is a brief book, it packs a punch. For those with an interest in history or contemporary politics, this is a must-read.
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LibraryThing member matamgirl
It feels odd to give a book like this five stars because that indicates that you liked the contents and really they were quite horrifying. This is about a boy who grew up in a North Korean labor camp and escaped. The things that he went through growing up are just unimaginable.

Overall though the reason this book got 5 stars is because it is important for people to know about the North Korean labor camps and that they are still around and that people are being treated like this now in 2012. It is not history it is a current event.… (more)
LibraryThing member msf59
"There is no 'human rights issue' in this country, as everyone leads the most dignified and happy life." - North Korean Central News Agency, March 6, 2009

Shin Dong-hyuk was born and raised, inside Camp 14. It is one of five, immense prisons, located in the mountains of North Korea. At a tender age, he witnessed the execution of his mother and brother. This story reads like a nightmarish dystopian novel, loaded with brutal guards, hunger, mind-control, cruelty, deceptions but in many ways it is far worse, since it is reportedly true.
In his early twenties, Shin escapes the camp. The very first to do so and the narrative follows Shin as he makes his long difficult journey to freedom and his acclimation into “normal” society.
This is the 3rd book, I have read about North Korea, in the past year or so. The first was the stunning Nothing to Envy and the 2nd was the trippy fictional odyssey, The Orphan Master’s Son. This one is not as strong as that pair but it still fits in, just fine.
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LibraryThing member busy91
What a heartbreaking story. I am very ignorant to what is going on in N. Korea. This young man's story was an educational moment for me. We learn about why N. Koreans are put into these camps. I assumed (with my Western mind) that they committed crimes, but this isn't the case at all. In N. Korea, you truly are visited by the sins of your father. I am going to continue to read more about N. Korea and try to get a broder view of what goes on there.… (more)
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
Written by the journalist who interviewed him after his escape, this is a compelling story of survival. Born in a North Korean "concentration camp" environment, for supposed crimes committed by his parents, Shin never really knew anything even approaching a normal life. For him, life was simply a matter of survival. There was no loyalty or the love of family, no compassionate relationship with friends, no conversation for fear of being overheard and reported for anything said. Emotions associated with kindness were absent from his life, and he never learned to feel them. There were no technological devices, no TVs, no newspapers, no real education, no modern convenience; nothing was plentiful, not clothing or food or books. He was ignorant, not only of the outside world, but also of the world within North Korea, that existed outside the grounds of Camp 14.
He describes himself as a predator, and indeed, he was a predator. His training consisted of learning the basics of certain subjects, spying on other students and family, and obedience to the ten rules of the camp. In the camp, individuals were supposed to watch each other and report any infractions to the officers. The smallest mistake resulted in brutal punishment. Trying to escape from the Camp would result in death for the escapees and torture for the rest of the family, as they were questioned to find out if they knew about the escape plans in advance, and didn’t report them. No relationship was sacrosanct because survival depended on outsmarting the system and the next person, intent on using you to get ahead and save themselves.
Respect for each other simply did not exist. Stealing, lying, spying on each other, were just some of the behavioral patterns that lived with him, in that environment. There was constant hunger, constant cold, constant work, most often backbreaking work.
Until Shin met someone, when in the underground prison of Camp 14, where he was being held unfairly and receiving undeserved brutal punishment because his mother and brother tried to escape, he knew nothing of the real world outside of the fence. From conversations with this cellmate, he learns to trust and share ideas. From these conversations, he dreams of leaving the Camp simply to eat some good meals with meat in them, grilled meat. To someone who has not experienced the degradation and starvation of the inmates, it might be an inconceivable idea to attempt an escape, which would mean certain death if caught and torture for his father, simply to eat! But to Shin, it was monumental and the idea developed his obsession to escape. He had been starved for so long, the thought of good food was tantalizing.
Defying reality and the odds, he did escape. With him he carried relief, no guilt, no shame. He felt his past behavior was justified. His snitching on his family and others meant nothing to him. It was what he was trained to do. He did not really know or understand human emotions, and he really did not harbor that much anger towards the system or the guards that abused him. He bore much more hatred and anger toward his mother for what she had put him through. He never trusted her to care for him, even while he stole her share of food, allowing her to go hungry. He believed that the guards were doing their duty, but his mom had put him at risk with her attempted escape. He was jealous of his brother, he was furious with his mother, he resented his father.
In the camp, they saw each other very rarely. Family visits were strictly regulated for all the inmates. He was raised to be someone who reported the crimes of others, perhaps real, perhaps imaginary, preying on others for what he needed, spying on others in order to survive because survival was of the utmost importance, and that is what he did; he became a survival machine. Until he met the man in the underground prison and learned that some people do care for each other and can be trusted, he had no other desire.
When he was in the free world, at last, he had difficulty accepting it and adjusting to it. He had to learn to feel. He wasn’t always easy to deal with or approach. He feels physically free, but he is a prisoner of himself, right now. He has to relearn how to be with people and how to help them find out about the plight of those in North Korea. He hopes to bring about a positive change for those still suffering.
The book had a lot of information between its covers. It is easy to listen to and hard to swallow all of the brutality. However, the descriptions of some of the events regarding his imprisonment and his escape were a bit too thin and sketchy for me. I would have liked the experiences to have been developed more fully, albeit without too much emotion since Shin was incapable of feeling or conveying it.
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LibraryThing member callmecayce
A friend of mine read this and recommended it to me (to supplement our obsession with reading about all sorts of books about Asian culture). This was the first book about North Korea that I'd read and it was eye opening, but also kind of strange. The world that Shin Dong Hyuk lived in was unlike anything I'd ever in through about (aside from concentration camps during the Holocaust) and even different from life in NK outside of camps (see Nothing to Envy). The book/biography is shorter than I expected and more detailed (about his time in the camps) than I would've thought, but it also seemed to me to be incomplete. I don't know if this is because Shin is so young (late 20s) or because he has so much life ahead of him (or maybe a combination of both). I almost want Harden to follow up with Shin in 10/15 years. I don't know if I can say that I liked the book, but I thought it was a profoundly depressing story, even once he escaped. And after reading Nothing to Envy, I realized that this was because of how hard he found it to live in a Western world -- where he has freedom. I highly recommend the book, also suggest supplementing it with other books on North Korea -- for no one book can tell the story of this country and it's people.… (more)

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