Saturday, July 06, 2013

Blaine Harden's Escape From Camp 14

I've read a number of books on North Korea, and they are all harrowing but essentially similar. The population internalizes the cult of personality and suffers. Blaine Harden's Escape From Camp 14 provides a different and even more terrifying angle to the horror that is North Korea.

Shin In Geun was born in a prison camp. That meant no one even bothered to tell him about Kim il Sung or his offspring because he was too low on the caste chain to bother. His role in life was to work and die young. His parents did not know each other but were prisoners who came together for marriage (meaning sex, since there was no love, companionship, or much else attached to marriage) as reward for good work. He grew to hate them and by snitching was even responsible for his mother's death, an action that haunted him later, but all he knew was the regime's demand that you inform on others, especially your family. Shin did not even know the existence of such feelings as love, hope, gratitude, or trust. They are still very difficult for him to internalize.

You cannot even conceive of escape until you know there is anything to escape to. Chance encounters with two other prisoners at different times opened his eyes, and he embarked on a plan that had only an infinitesimal chance of succeeding. Amazingly it did. Ultimately he saw "freedom" mostly in terms of being able to eat regularly.

What made this book unique for me was to consider how difficult it is for this young man--since he is still young--to figure out how to live outside North Korea. For all defectors, paranoia is an instinct, but Shin has to learn emotions that 99.99% of the human population experiences at a very young age. It is frustrating to read of a government consciously inflicting such pain, but even more frustrating when you start trying to think about what could realistically be done in response.


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