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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 7 page 18


Escape, no escape

Escape from Camp 14
One Man’s remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

by Blaine Harden
ISBN 978-0-670-02332-5

reviewed by
Clement Peddington

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in the most brutal of North Korea's political prison camps and labored there until January 2005 when, at age 23, he became one of the few prisoners ever to break free from a North Korean “total control zone.”

Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14 is Shin’s escape story. You’ll find it gripping but dispiriting too, not only because of what Shin had to do to survive in the camp, but also because, altho he escaped physically, he cannot escape psychologically.

On the other hand, it’s a comforting book in the sense that you can always say: I’m glad I’m not that guy.

Camp 14 is a vast area alongside the Taedong River in a mountainous region maybe 80 km north of Pyongyang as the crow flies. The camp is surrounded by guard towers and high-voltage barbed-wire fence. The prisoners raise crops, dig coal, and toil in factories for 12 to 15 hours daily, all the while subsisting on a meagre diet of corn and cabbage. They’re a low-cost workforce, like Stalin had in Siberia.

Shin’s incarceration in Camp 14 was during the reign of North Korea's “Great Leader” Kim Jong-il, which was also an era of food shortages throughout the country. Prisoners were often desperately hungry.

Prisoners wore rags, without socks or underclothes. They lacked soap and toilet paper. They smelled like barn animals. They died, usually of malnutrition-related illness, before age 50.

They were at the mercy of guards who were trained to show no mercy, and who had summary execution powers.

Shin is slight of build, his body providing grim evidence of the Camp 14 code. His arms are warped from childhood labor. At age ten he was working in a coal mine. He bears scars from interrogations, shackles, fire and electrical burns. His right middle finger is cut short from the time a foreman chopped it as punishment for dropping a sewing machine.

You could be summarily executed for practically anything, such as concealing foodstuffs, or having sex without permission. And naturally you would be shot for trying to escape the camp, or for failing to report somebody else’s plan to escape. For their instruction in that respect, all inmates were obliged to attend the public executions.

At age 14 Shin was made to watch his mother hanged and his brother shot for planning an escape. Shin was the one who overheard their plot and squealed on them to a guard. They deserved to die, he told himself at the time. If he hadn’t turned them in, he was liable to get shot too.

I’d better mention here that Shin Dong-hyuk's mission in life today is human rights. He travels around telling audiences about Camp 14. It takes some courage for him to recount the dehumanized creature the camp had made of him and how he climbed from that abyss.

Shin came out to Dalhousie University in May to receive an honorary degree. Speaking thru a translator he told us, “Go places where there is no love and teach love and go to places where there is no happiness and teach happiness,” which has an evangelistic ring to it.