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Book Break – How the horrors of a North Korean labor camp drove one citizen to “Escape from Camp 14”

In “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom”, Blaine Harden tells the riveting story of the first person to be born in and escape from a North Korean political labor camp, Shin Donghyuk. During his 22 years in Camp 14, Shin endured isolation, torture, starvation, endless work, and life alone with no concept of love or family. Reviews of “Escape from Camp 14” include comments that, “If you have a soul, you will be changed forever…” (Mitchell Zuckoff, New York Times). Pretty powerful commentary.

The book ends up being a hybrid between true stories, and a study of North Korea. It chronicles experiences in Shin’s tortured life, and then expands on many of them with details highlighting the rampant atrocities in North Korea. For many books, this cycling between narratives and background details might be a distraction; however, here they serve as important underscorings of how oppressive things truly are in this isolationist country.

In North Korea, citizens who are condemned to a camp can be held for the rest of their lives… and their kids’ lives… and their kids’ lives. Three generations of lives for allegedly doing something against their repressive government. It’s a tragic cycle that can’t be questioned by North Korean citizens.

Inside camps such as # 14, the Kaechon Internment Camp that Shin lived in, prisoners exist solely for the betterment of North Korea. They are worked relentlessly, beaten, and nearly starved to death such that they are a physical shell of a person. “Marriages” are arranged by camp staff, but couples are still segregated and rarely afforded the opportunity to be alone. Kids endure hunger to the point that they will pinch kernels of corn out of animal feces just to have something to eat, despite the risk of being punished for it.

Prisoners are broken down mentally, being told over and over that the actions of their families justify their incarceration. They are further programmed to rat out other prisoners who consider doing things against the camp, such as escape. Failure to do so is considered equal to aiding those prisioners, and the accomplice must then “be shot immediately”. A common punishment that repeatedly echoes through the camp rules that prisoners must memorize.

Overall, “Escape from 14” rates… 4 out of 5 Crumbs. It is very good, but it left me wanting more. The author’s interviews with Shin extracted many difficult details from him, but there are so many more things I wanted to know about Shin’s experiences and life inside the camps. If you look at the importance of the topic though, it is off the charts. North Korea’s atrocities receive little attention these days, and this book is a true eye opener that hopefully sparks greater exposure to life there.

Looking for a bit more background on “Escape from Camp 14”? An interesting interview with the author by Sacramento radio hosts Armstrong and Getty can be found on their website. (It’s the first segment in that hour’s podcast.)

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Starting In Right Field… Harry Potter

My wife and I don’t care for baseball.  I’ll admit, we’ve caught the local AAA team in action and stayed for most of the innings.  We’ve even seen a game at the baseball temple that is the original Yankee Stadium.  For us though, it’s not a sport we follow or care watch to any extent.  This apathy is despite the passion some of our closer friends have for baseball.  A passion that we’ve never understood.

Yankee Stadium's Monument ParkAt a recent party, baseball came up and the conversation quickly turned in to evangelization as to why it is such a great sport.  The subtle strategy… the skill of the players… the exciting atmosphere of a close game… “You like football and hockey, I don’t understand why don’t you like baseball?!?”  They’re points we’ve heard before, but they just don’t collectively resonate with us to the point that we care.

In contrast, an obsession my wife and oldest daughter share is for Harry Potter.  They’ve taken in the books and movies numerous times, and debated the minutiae that J. K. Rowling weaved in to her stories.  When discussing the series with muggles who haven’t read the series, or have “just seen the movies”, they become very spirited and passionate.  The subtle depth of the story lines… the talent in the writing… the wondrous atmosphere that his Hogwarts…  “You like (insert any book), I don’t understand why you don’t like Harry Potter?!?”

Personally, I lump Harry Potter with baseball.  He’s just not my style.  The disparate passions they kindle though make me smile, and show that one person’s passion is another’s “eh, that’s nice”.

Now if Harry Potter traded quidditch for baseball… then maybe that would change things.

Honoring Independence Day – “The Good Soldiers”

To state the obvious, opinions about America’s second war in Iraq have varied widely amongst people.  These views often develop from newspaper articles, cable news shows, and polarized radio hosts which look at the war from a macro level.  A key piece that is often missing is what the war means to the soldiers living it each day… on the ground… in the dust clouds of roadside bombs.  David Finkel’s account of an infantry battalion he was embedded with during the surge, helps to bridge this gap.

“The Good Soldiers” documents the Iraq deployment of Fort Riley, Kansas’s 2-16 Infantry Battalion in 2007-2008.  Led by Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, the battalion enters the fight with the best intentions of stemming the violence in Iraq.  The maddening reality of numerous challenges and eminent danger develop in each soldier over time, providing incredible insight into what serving on the ground in Iraq is like.

Finkel does an outstanding job capturing the futility of dealing with random bomb attacks, the difficulty often found in working the local Iraqis, and the toll a long, stressful deployment takes on soldiers.  He served eight months in Iraq with the 2-16, and conducted extensive research on events he didn’t see.  The detailed, choreographed writing of this Pulitzer Prize winning author molds “The Good Soldiers” in to a captivating story that is definitely worth a read.

In the spirit of Kauzlarich’s optimism and dedication, “It’s all good.

Rating… 5 out of 5 Crumbs

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