Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden is the third account I have read about life in North Korea’s prison camps, after The Aquariums of Pyongyang and Eyes of the Tailless Animals. Unlike those two accounts, however, Escape from Camp 14 was not written by a prisoner. Shin Dong Hyuk was interviewed by Harden after he escaped to South Korea and then after he moved to the United States. Using the preceding two books as a reference, I have my doubts about the veracity of the testimony made by Shin. Harden writes:

“In writing this book, I have sometimes struggled to trust him. He misled me in our first interview about his role in the death of his mother, and he continued to do so in more than a dozen interviews. When he changed his story, I became worried about what else he might have made up. 
“Fact-checking is not possible in North Korea. Outsiders have not visited its political prison camps. Accounts of what goes on inside them cannot be independently verified. Although satellite images have greatly added to outside understanding of the camps, defectors remain the primary sources of information, and their motives and credibility are not spotless. In South Korea and elsewhere, they are often desperate to make a living, willing to confirm the preconceptions of human rights activists, anticommunist missionaries, and right-wing ideologues. Some camp survivors refuse to talk unless they are paid cash upfront. Others repeated juicy anecdotes they had heard but not personally witnessed.” 

So caveat emptor. Although any eyewitness story to the horrors of the North Korean prison camps should not be denied, I nonetheless found Escape from Camp 14 the least believable. The story was lightweight and since Harden and Shin needed to communicate by interpreters, I got the impression that much was missed and padded by Harden’s own imagination. Since the story was told in the third person, it actually detracted from my own sensitivity toward the horrors of the camp. I would have had a dripping heart had the story been told by Shin himself.

Unlike the authors of the two preceding books, Shin was actually born in a prison camp. He was the product of a “reward marriage”, a rare privilege awarded to exemplary prisoners. Shin’s mother and father were selected to marry by prison officials and although they were not allowed to live together, they were given a few conjugal visits per year. 

Shin and an older brother lived with their mother in Camp 14 in central North Korea. Unlike all the other prisoners, the Shin boys never knew life outside the brutality of the prison camp. This was their life from the day they were born: starvation, witness to executions, beatings, sleep deprivation and unbearable labour. 

As Soon Ok Lee says in Eyes of the Tailless Animals, the prisoners were like animals, acting without feeling or compassion for anyone. It was a constant fight for survival, and no one was exempt from being a victim, not even one’s own mother:  

“When he [Shin] was in the camp–depending upon her for all his meals, stealing her food, enduring her beatings–he saw her as competition for survival.” 

Shin despised his family, and when he discovered that his mother and brother were planning to escape, he sneaked off in the middle of the night and reported them to a guard. Instead of being rewarded for his vigilance, Shin was taken to an underground prison and tortured for seven months as the guards sought his role in their planned escape. When he was finally freed he hated his mother and brother even more. Once taken outside to see daylight for the first time in seven months, he was led to the camp’s execution ground, where he was forced to witness in the front row the executions of his mother and brother: 

“When guards dragged her to the gallows, Shin saw that his mother looked bloated. They forced her to stand on a wooden box, gagged her, tied her arms behind her back, and tightened a noose around her neck. They did not cover her swollen eyes.
She scanned the crowd and found Shin. He refused to hold her gaze.
When guards pulled away the box, she jerked about desperately. As he watched his mother struggle, Shin thought she deserved to die.
Shin’s brother looked gaunt and frail as guards tied him to the wooden post. Three guards fired their rifles three times. Bullets snapped the rope that held his forehead to the pole. It was a bloody, brain-splattered mess of a killing, a spectacle that sickened and frightened Shin, But he thought his brother, too, had deserved it.” 

Not a single tear shed. 

Fellow prisoners Shin meets give him ideas of what life is like on the other side of the electric fence. Shin learns about his own country–he had never even heard of Pyongyang–as well as other countries and foods. He never tasted meat except for rats and frogs he would catch in the camp to quash the constant hunger pains. One new prisoner tells him about the delicacies of meat, which took on a different meaning for Shin: 

“Freedom, in Shin’s mind, was just another word for grilled meat.” 

Shin latches on to a new yet much older prisoner and they devise their own plan to escape. The escape is the best part of the book. It is suspenseful and I will not spoil the story of their flight from Camp 14, other than to say you will be riveted to each page and your eyes will not blink as you read how they got past the deadly electric fence. Shin then makes his way through the northern part of the country and into China. Harden left a chunk of the story on the editor’s floor as he does not inform the reader how Shin managed to get into South Korea from China. It was one sentence he was in China, and the next sentence Shin was in Seoul. Harden did write about other defectors’ travels from China through Asian nations like Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, and he did write about defector-smuggling organized rings. Perhaps he did this in lieu of reporting Shin’s own story. Shin has a habit of clamming up during Harden’s interviews and it is possible he never told him any of these details.

A lifetime since birth of being in a cruel, loveless society as a prison camp causes untold harm to a human being. Shin may be living in freedom but he still sees himself as a prisoner: 

“I escaped physically. I haven’t escaped psychologically.” 

He has difficulty trusting anyone, as trust always betrayed him in Camp 14, nor can he look anyone in the eye when speaking to them. Shin acknowledges that he is on a slow road to recovery, yet his current role as a speaker for North Korean human rights groups is helping him seize control of his life.

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