BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Escaping from the world's worst tyranny
, July 7, 2012
ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14:
One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
by Blaine Harden
Paperback: 256 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
Shin Dong-hyuk is the first person born in a North Korean political prison camp to escape (in 2005, at the age of 23) and eventually reach the West.
His is more than a story of liberation from harsh penal servitude in the world’s closest approximation to a totalitarian society.
It is also a story of escape not only from ignorance (such as not knowing of the existence of television, or the names Kim Il-sung and Kim Il-jong, or that the world is round) but from a moral nihilism which led him to betray his mother and brother to execution.
This is not a feel-good fairytale, or a television episode in which all the loose ends are tied up in half an hour.
The present-day Shin we meet in this book does not always behave in ways that idealistic Westerners expect him to, or would like him to; but, given his horrific childhood and adolescence described in these pages, this is scarcely surprising.
He is still a work in progress.
“North Korea’s labour camps have now existed twice as long as the Soviet Gulag and about twelve times longer than the Nazi concentration camps,” he tells readers.
Like its Russian and German counterparts, the North Korean system is marked by arbitrary internment (through the National Security Agency, the Bowibu), starvation, overwork, and arbitrary violence and death.
Under North Korea’s dogma of guilt by association, which includes generational guilt, Shin was kept imprisoned because his father was a prisoner, and his father was a prisoner because two of his brothers fled to the South during the Korean War (1950-3).
Shin grew up under a loveless law of the jungle, in which other people were rivals, whom one distrusted, and attempted to exploit.
He watched dispassionately as a female classmate was battered to death by a teacher for a trivial offence.
He was regularly beaten by his mother for stealing her food; he was tortured by being badly burned for alleged complicity in the abortive escape attempt by his mother and brother (which engendered in him a deep hatred for both of them); and he had the end of a finger hacked off as punishment for dropping a sewing machine.
Knowledge of life outside the camp, and the consequent raging desire to experience it for himself, was sparked by Shin’s fortuitous contacts with two older prisoners, formerly part of the North Korean apparat.
They told him about China, South Korea, and an even wider world, where people used computers and mobile phones and — most gloriously pertinent at the time, to someone who had known what it was to exist on rats, weeds and insects — unlimited food!
Shin escaped through the wire at the cost of the life of one of these mentors, but you will have to read the book to find out the details.
His subsequent journey out of North Korea itself sheds fascinating light on the current gradual grassroots changes in life under the Pyongyang regime.
The North Korean economy has almost completely collapsed, resulting in, amongst other things, widespread malnutrition and absence of medical facilities.
The central government has been reduced to scams such as international insurance fraud, and embezzling of international aid, not in order to relieve the sufferings of its population, but to fund the armed forces, and the extravagant lifestyle of its nomenklatura.
It has also has given rise to a complex system of people’s capitalism (simultaneously tolerated and condemned by the authorities) which includes bartering, markets, small-scale private farming, smuggling, corruption, and gangs of deracinated transients looking for food and work.
This means, for example, not only that officials such as guards on the Chinese border can be bribed, but that other officials hire out government (there are no other kind) vehicles as “taxis” between towns.
Traders illegally bringing in consumer goods from China might be completely selfish and non-ideological in their motivation, but they are unintentionally destroying the Kim dynasty’s myth that North Koreans enjoy the world’s highest standard of living.
The Big Lie has suffered in particular from the influx of small, cheap Chinese radios, which can be tuned to receive broadcasts from sources such as South Korea and Radio America.
It is questionable whether Shin could have made his way through the North Korean countryside, and across the Tumen River into China, in an earlier decade of tighter controls.
China, of course, is much bigger, untidier, and more advanced along the road from totalitarianism than is North Korea.
It is possible, as Shin’s story demonstrates, for refugees to live and work in China and even travel from China to the West; but it is also possible for them to get picked up in the periodic police dragnets, and sent back to imprisonment, torture and death in the North Korean gulag.
Shin discovered a different form of ambivalence in South Korea.
There, once they have been thoroughly interrogated, and their bona fides established, escapees from the North are given every form of assistance, protection and affirmation by the authorities.
The problem is that they are physically, psychologically and educationally unprepared for life in the West. They find it very difficult to settle into employment and relationships, and tend to be patronised, ignored or despised by ordinary South Koreans, who have little interest in ideological, let alone military, confrontation with the North.
Shin has also found it difficult to settle in the United States, despite the warm support he has received from many sources.
There, he has faced the crisis of dealing with the deep-seated moral pathology inculcated by his formative years in the camp.
He has struggled to not only objectively accept, but to subjectively experience, concepts such as love, altruism, loyalty, forgiveness, trust, acceptance and gratitude — the last famously described by North Korea’s grandfather, Stalin, as “dog’s disease”.
This is the latest in a number of books on North Korea which I have reviewed for News Weekly over the years.
It is important to maintain a focus on the Hermit Kingdom and its hereditary despotism, because, despite its representing the world’s worst tyranny, the Western commentariat, especially the Left, consistently ignores it or treats it as a mere curiosity.
There are honourable exceptions on the liberal, Orwellian Left even here in Australia, such as the ALP’s Michael Danby, who has done sterling work in publicising North Korea’s human rights abuses.
As Harden says, the Tibetans have Richard Gere, the Burmese Aung San Suu Kyi and the Darfurians George Clooney, but “in a media culture that feeds on celebrity, no movie star, no pop idol, no Nobel prize winner [has] stepped forward to demand that outsiders invest emotionally in a distant issue that lacks good video”.
This book is an excellent and compulsively readable addition to the steadily expanding case for the prosecution of the North Korean obscenity.