“High School students in America debate why President Roosevelt didn’t bomb the rail lines to Hitler’s camps. Their children may ask, a generation from now, why the West stared at far clearer satellite images of Kim Jong Il’s camps, and did nothing.”
Escape from Camp 14 is the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known person to be born in a North Korean work camp and successfully escape. Shin’s mother and father were both prisoners in Camp 14 for crimes committed long before Shin was born; Shin himself is the product of his parents’ “reward marriage.” He was born in the camp and received a rudimentary education that stressed being obedient and snitching on friends & family. Brutal beatings were part of the prisoners daily lives; Shin witnessed a classmate be beaten to death for stealing a few kernels of corn. When he should have been starting Kindergarten he began the manual slave labor North Korean prisons are built on.
His mother and brother tried to escape when Shin was a young boy; Shin was interrogated and tortured for months simply because he was related to attempted escapees. Then he had to witness their executions. Shin had numerous awful jobs as a prisoner but it was his final job, as a sewing machine repairman, that led to his escape. He met a man, Park, who had been part of the upper class; he had traveled outside of North Korea and shared numerous stories with Shin that inspired the two of them to attempt an escape.
Shin was constantly hungry, he and his friends trapped rats for extra food, and Shin resented his mother, even after her death, for never providing him with enough food. After hearing stories about outside the prison walls Shin began to associate the outside world as a place he could have grilled meat!
Why did you escape the prison camp you lived in for 23 years? I wanted to taste grilled pork.
Shin’s escape came at a pretty lucky time when North Korean laws were in a lenient phase and border patrolmen accepted bribes. That’s not to say it was easy; Shin had to scavenge and steal for weeks in the cold before he made his way to China. The Chinese are hesitant to help North Koreans, mostly because they’re fed up with the constant flow of defectors, but Shin found work with a few farmers and restaurant owners but frequently quit after a few weeks. Eventually Shin found a man who took him to the South Korean embassy and made his way to Seoul where he received refugee benefits and was diagnosed with PTSD.
Unfortunately, upon some further Googling, I discovered that Shin is a bit of a liar; some of this may stem from his upbringing and some of it may stem from his desire to have his story be memorable and special. However, many other North Korean defectors have been able to verify through their own experiences his claims and the physical scars on his body provide more proof. He also seems to have a shitty work ethic, particularly his time spent in the United States, that makes him a bit less sympathetic.
Like most biographies and memoirs, if you don’t like the person you’re reading about it may color your opinion of the book as a whole. Harden delivers a well researched biography but his unlikable, unreliable subject makes it hard to give this more than 2.5 Stars…