Blaine Harden’s chronicle of Shin Dong-hyuk’s life in a North Korean prison camp and his eventual escape is a slim, searing, humble book—as close to perfect as these volumes of anguished testimony can be. Shin is a child of the camp system in the most literal sense—he was born in 1982 in Camp 14, one of the half-dozen secret facilities that dot the country, forming a modern gulag archipelago holding up to two hundred thousand prisoners. And while some of the camps allow for rehabilitation and release (albeit with lifetime monitoring), Shin was born into a “complete control district,” a place where prisoners are trapped for life. The inmates work until they die—usually at a young age—from disease, starvation, accident, or execution. They’re punished for even the smallest infraction, such as gathering in groups of three or more, stealing food, or failing to fulfill their impossibly arduous work quotas. If they don’t report another prisoner’s rule breaking, it’s a capital offense. Snitching is considered a virtue—one of the few inculcated by camp guards and teachers, who never reveal their names.
When Shin was fourteen, he was forced to watch as his mother and brother were executed for planning an escape. Shin was taken to an underground prison and tortured for information about his presumed role in the scheme. He was kept there for months and nearly died, but another prisoner nursed him back to health and told him stories from the outside world. (In all likelihood, the prisoner was a spy meant to gather information from Shin.) Despite the assaults targeting Shin’s family, blood relations had little meaning in a place like Camp 14. Shin’s father was also an inmate, but a stranger to his son. We learn from Harden that Shin’s “mother beat him, and he viewed her as a competitor for food.”
Harden is an able guide through this world of state-mandated brutality. He draws on his reporting for the Washington Post, as well as interviews with think-tankers, North Korean defectors, and NGO workers. It’s significant that Harden doesn’t see his book as a definitive account; he’s careful to explain the limitations of what we can know about North Korea, while also recommending books such as Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. His prose is cool and measured—the descriptions of violence are vivid but never oversaturated—and Harden makes clear that, while he has affection and sympathy for Shin, he also knows that Shin might not always be telling the entire truth.
Escape from Camp 14, like a Holocaust memoir, occupies rarefied moral air, but nonetheless might have prompted criticism in the hands of a less assured writer than Harden. It could be sententious or loose with the historical record, or have trouble treating its subject dispassionately. The protagonist’s cruel behavior could have been elided, or the author might have privileged himself over his subject. Harden avoids these traps by praising but not valorizing Shin—he reveals some of Shin’s own cruelty—and by leaving gaps instead of resorting to conjecture. The book avoids orotund pronouncements; Harden doesn’t gild the catastrophe. He also nods to “the bonds of trust and mutual protection that kept prisoners alive and sane in Nazi concentration camps,” while allowing the North Korean gulag to stand as a distinct example of historical barbarism.
In such an environment, one of the questions that haunts Holocaust memoirs also surfaces here: Why didn’t Shin follow so many other prisoners to suicide? Simply because he had no idea what he was missing—no concept of the outside world, or of the meager pleasures afforded to some North Koreans. Shin had never heard of television, or even the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il. As Harden writes, “a perverse benefit of birth in the camp was a complete absence of expectations.”
Escaping from North Korea is not as uncommon as it once was. The border with China is porous—though Shin, in one of many instances of his luck, had the advantage of escaping mere months before Korea and China stepped up border security. Wearing a stolen army uniform from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Shin bribed some hungry border guards with food and cigarettes. (“I’m dying of hunger here,” said the last teenage soldier between Shin and China. “Don’t you have anything to eat?”) Shin escaped on January 2, 2005. A handful of other people have carried out similar escapes (as have some guards and prison personnel)—but Shin is likely the only person born in a camp who managed to get out alive. He entered the free world as a twenty-three-year-old tabula rasa.
The adjustment process for North Korean defectors is usually excruciating. Some ex-prisoners simply can’t reconcile themselves to the outside world. Harden reports that at one resettlement center, some defectors don’t believe it was the North, and not the South, that launched a surprise attack on June 25, 1950, starting the Korean War. “Many defectors flatly refuse to believe that this fundamental pillar of North Korean history is a lie,” Harden writes. “They become angry.” Escapees can encounter huge hurdles in anything from opening a bank account to understanding social mores and establishing normal relationships. They bounce around between cities and menial jobs, confined to society’s margins.
Shin isn’t immune to these issues. His emotional problems and depression are sometimes severe; he’s consumed by feelings of guilt and remorse—notably toward his mother, for whom he reserves both some hatred and some sympathy. He wants to educate the world about North Korea’s prison camps, but finds it difficult to work with other people, and often feels unworthy of having survived. At times, he says, he feels as if he’s still psychologically trapped in Camp 14.
“I am evolving from being an animal,” Shin tells Harden. “But it is going very, very slowly.”
Jacob Silverman is a contributing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review and a columnist for Jewcy.