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What's it like to be born in a North Korean prison camp?

Book Review: Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden

During World War 2, Jan Karski, a Polish underground resistance fighter, brought evidence of terrible things that were happening to the Jews at the hands of the Nazis in German-occupied Poland. But for a variety of reasons, his effort did not lead to any action on the part of the Allies. Many years latter, Karski bitterly remarked,

“It was easy for the Nazis to kill Jews, because they did it. The allies considered it impossible and too costly to rescue the Jews, because they didn’t do it. The Jews were abandoned by all governments, church hierarchies and societies, but thousands of Jews survived because thousands of individuals in Poland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland helped to save Jews. Now, every government and church says, ‘We tried to help the Jews,’ because they are ashamed, they want to keep their reputations. They didn’t help, because six million Jews perished, but those in the government, in the churches they survived. No one did enough.” 

It would take many years before the Holocaust’s horrors were brought to public awareness. While the Holocaust is widely seen today as the most terrible of modern human rights crimes, and awareness of it is high, disturbingly, present day human rights problems seem to receive little attention. A Washington Post editorial had this to say: “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.”

In North Korea, Amnesty International estimates 200,000 political prisoners, including children, are locked away in a gulag archipelago scattered across that sad land. The largest of these covers approximately the area of Los Angeles. While one can see these camps on satellite images, the North Korean government denies their existence and little is know about them in the West — the stories of the few escapees seem to find no willing ears. Published many years ago The Aquariums of Pyongyang seemed to make little impact.

Part of the reason why the media has paid little attention is that stories of escapees are hard, if not impossible to verify. This predicament from hell puts the journalist in an impossible situation. On one hand, the duty to the truth requires a journalist to verify stories, no matter how tragic or moving, but at some point this practice, while laudable in principle, can lead the journalist astray because it forces him in special circumstances — as when tyrants manipulate access — to remain silent.

Yet silence has a price. Silence is part of the reason why North Korean regime survives and is able to keep the lid on two decades after the collapse of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. Another reason why the plight of North Koreans remains in the shadows has to do with the fact that they lack a prominent sponsor to advocate on their behalf. The Poles had no less than the Pope himself to advocate on behalf of their cause, the Tibetans have the Dalai Lama, and Darfurians have such Hollywood celebrities as Mia Farrow and George Clooney. The effect of these sponsors varies, but their advocacy keeps the matter from being swept under the rug of silence.

Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West is meant to once again attempt to raise awareness of the human rights issues in North Korea by highlighting the story of one detainee Shin In Geun, who managed to escape and eventually make his way to America. Shin’s story is particularly shocking because he is the first known escapee to have been born in one of the camps.

 Shin grew up in an environment that is hard to fathom, a place in which there was little or no love and everyone was encouraged to report on everyone else. Hunger and fear were constant, as was ever present threat of violence and death — one of Shin’s first memories is that of an execution. Shin grew up in a place so fantastically brutal and unloving that it’s only analogue is found in dystopian visions such as that of The Hunger Games.

 But how do you convince the world that your fantastically bad experiences are real? And, once you do tell your stories, how do you keep yourself still human in their eyes? Understandably, one of the fears that Shin had, once he arrived in South Korea and even the U.S., centered on the question of how the act of sharing the stories of his terrible childhood would make him come across in the eyes of people. “I was terrified of a backlash,” Blaine Harden quotes him, “of people asking me, ‘Are you even human?’”

 But telling his story is a vitally important act because ignorance and silence have the power to make even the most evil acts seem normal and even banal. Part of the mind control strategy of the North Korean regime is to keep people isolated, forever suspicious of others as well as ignorant.

 It was ignorance of morality and love that was at work when Shin informed on his mother’s plans for escape, which resulted in her and his brother’s deaths, something for which he felt no guilt only until much latter, when he started to learn about basic moral values.

 But in the upside-down world of the camp constructed with the help of ignorance, he felt no guilt for betraying his mother, for being one of the “mean” prisoners, because his upbringing valorized betrayal — from young age children in the camp were taught to inform on one another, on anyone who made the mistake of sharing anything with them.

Informing on others was also rewarded with food, which, in a world of constant hunger, was a powerful incentive. Shin hoped that his act would get him more food. He reasoned that his reward would be great because of the gravity of the crime — escape was a major thing — but he was also in throes of panic: the first rule of the camp was to report any attempt or risk being shot.

But in a world built on betrayal, trusting anyone is a foolish act. Instead of reward, punishment awaits — Shin ended up in an underground torture chamber. Shin was betrayed in turn by the man he told, who made him an accomplice — guards who discovered escape attempts were offered a chance to move up in the hermit kingdom’s twisted world.

Unbeknownst to Shin, no matter what, he would be just as guilty of the act as his mother and brother; in the world of North Korea, guilt by association is standard practice. Indeed, the reason why his family was in the camp went all the way back to the 1950s, when his uncles themselves escaped: “the unforgivable crime Shin’s father had committed was being the brother of two younger men who fled south.”

Despite his terrible childhood, Shin managed to retain enough sanity to attempt an escape. The seed of a better life was planted in him by two men whom he met while in the camp. The first was simply called Uncle, and while Shin knew little about his past, Uncle’s stories of good food outside the camp whetted Shin’s appetite for freedom. If “Uncle had dared Shin to dream about one day getting out of the camp and eating whatever he wanted,” the second man opened with his stories global vistas. A former member of North Korea’s upper class, Park managed to end up in the camp after he was caught trying to get back to North Korea from China. A catastrophic error in judgment that would cost him his life, Park’s choice was also the work of Providence for Shin—it was Park’s unexpected friendship that would be the sparkling moment in Shin’s life, breaking the pattern of “wariness and betrayal” in which he was trapped. Park’s ideas and stories injected a new, rejuvenating narrative that freed Park from being the creation of the camp and its overseers and made possible the beginning of a new life.

 This new life is not without its problems. While Shin was certainly very lucky to have escaped, his escape has not been complete. Psychologically, he is, like many of North Koreans who have escaped to South Korea and the U.S. — and indeed, survivors of political oppression — still struggling with the experience. Finding his way as a free man challenging, the camp’s Skinner box world still casts its pall over his life.

Escape From Camp 14 is the kind of book that young adults should read because it is a cautionary tale about the power of ignorance and a case study in the need for basic moral values such as honesty, love, the redeeming power of true friendship—while in our postmodern age we may dismiss these as old fashioned, without them human experience becomes meaningless.

About A. Jurek

A Jurek is a Blogcritics contributor.

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