Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden – A Book Review

Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden and Shin In Geun, is a powerful expose of the ongoing horror story that is North Korea. As you read, consider the question: is evil real? Is the North Korean prison system evil – or is that just a word we use to describe our personal feelings about it?By retelling the story of Shin, a North Korean born within Labor Camp 14, Harden vividly exposes us to the frightening world of a living nightmare. Shin’s story is but one story: there are perhaps 200,000 individuals living in these prison camps as you read this post.

Shin is barely educated, except to be indoctrinated into the harsh rules of a slave camp; barely fed, except to be worked nearly to death; and barely loved, except to be manipulated and controlled. His father is tortured, his mother and brother are executed while he watches, and he is also tortured, all at the whim of the guards who exercise total and brutal authority over the camp. His only rewards come from turning in other prisoners for breaking the camp rules.

Their education is abysmal. Shin observes his “teacher,” whose name he never hears, viciously beat a student to death in class. Her crime? Having five kernels of corn in her pocket. Shin is taught that the student deserved this punishment, as do all prisoners, because their very blood is treasonous and opposed to the noble state. In this tightly controlled atmosphere, he receives almost no information about his own country, much less the existence of any other country or way of life. “Students” are mainly abused and required to do harsh labor. At “school”, all Shin learns is how to survive.

As for their physical health, prisoners are barely fed. For 23 years, Shin ate little besides corn porridge, pickled cabbage, and cabbage soup. Even this meager diet is sometimes restricted as punishment. He was allowed to supplement his diet by finding rats, frogs, snakes, insects, raw pig, and unripe fruit and vegetables. One shoddy uniform is given to prisoners every two years. Sometimes prisoners are subjected to experiments, one of which leads their skin to “putrefy and flake off” as high fevers incapacitate them. Prisoners are required to beat each other as punishment for small infractions. At one stage in his life, Shin gets on the bad side of his teacher, and is beaten with a shovel, attacked by fellow students, called vicious names, and otherwise terrorized for months.

The forced building of a hydroelectric dam, even through the frigid winter, leads to hundreds of prisoners dying. When strict work quotas are not met, harsh beatings, additional work hours, and reduced food rations are standard procedures. Prisoners are also expected to relentlessly criticize themselves and one another in group meetings. The slaves are constantly told that hard work is the only way of redemption available to them.

While sex is almost universally forbidden to prisoners, upon pain of death, there are no such prohibitions for the guards. Rather, guards regularly order the female prisoners to “go clean my room” which is code for “prepare to be raped.” To refuse is to be killed. Shin sees his own mother raped. However, when female prisoners inevitably become pregnant, they disappear, to be privately executed. As another prisoner has explained, “The theory behind the camps was to cleanse unto three generations the families of incorrect thinkers. So it was inconsistent to allow another generation to be born” (37).

None of this can be justified as punishment for any crime. But how did the North Korean government attempt to justify it? Their absurd explanation goes like this:

The unforgivable crime Shin’s father had committed was being the brother of two young men who had fled south during a fratricidal war that razed much of the Korean Peninsula and divided hundreds of thousands of families. Shin’s unforgivable crime was being his father’s son (55).

In other words, from birth, Shin grew up a slave because his uncles fled North Korea during a horrible war.

Given his childhood, the story of Shin’s escape from the labor camp, journey to China, and eventual move to South Korea and then the United States is all the more exhilarating. His slow and uneven development into an outspoken advocate for human rights is incredible. The publication of Escape from Camp 14 is an important step forward for Shin and his country. Simply put, Harden knows how to tell a story and does a masterful job with this book.

According to the best estimates of this closed state, about 24 million people live in North Korea. The human rights violations they endure on a daily basis has been carefully documented (see here and here). Clearly, the North Korean government is completely illegitimate, guilty of crimes against humanity. Though replacing the current government would be tremendously challenging, and rebuilding North Korea would be incredibly complicated and expensive, the current cost in human lives is simply immeasurable and unacceptable.

I encourage you to take action. There are two organizations mentioned in the book. Shin has been involved with LiNK. You can learn more about them here. His own NGO, less developed, is called North Korea Freedom Plexus.

However you choose to get involved, do something, and do it with others. If you’d like to read the book for yourself, it is available at Amazon.