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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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