I have thought for a long time that the modern world’s toleration of North Korea’s atrocities will be seen in hindsight as an abdication of moral responsibility greater than the Allied Powers’ lengthy refusal to respond to the Holocaust in World War II, or the U.N.’s reaction to the Rwandan genocide. Blaine Harden’s extraordinary Escape from Camp 14 shows the human cost of this abdication.
Escape from Camp 14 tells the story of Shin Donghyuk, who was born and raised in one of North Korea’s political prison camps. His life in the camp is a nightmare that almost beggars belief. There is of course the appalling torture meted out by sadistic guards; the public displays of cruelty, such as the execution that is Shin’s first memory; and the endless deprivation of food, water, and sanitation. But what is worse is the near total absence of personal warmth — or indeed any real human relationships at all. Shin’s parents display little affection for him; he was the product, not of love, but of a sexual liaison “rewarded” to two compliant prisoners. Growing up he saw his mother primarily as a competitor for food, not as a caretaker (he rarely saw his father). And due to the snitching encouraged by camp guards, Shin treated his fellow prisoners, and was treated by them in return, as potential betrayers, never as friends.
As the title of the book indicates, Shin is able to escape from this nightmare, in a daring expedition that is only less horrible than his confinement because of its promise of freedom. But Shin’s ending is hardly a happy one. Adjusting to a life of relative plenitude (in China) and then actual comfort (in South Korea) has been understandably difficult. But learning to like and trust others, and to come to terms with his earlier, brutal self, has been even harder. In many ways Camp 14 made Shin into a sociopath. That mindset was essential to his survival in the prison camp, but it is alien to the circles where he now lives and travels. Harden is sympathetic to Shin’s plight, and makes much of his attempts at reform, but I think it is clear that Shin still struggles to feel much guilt for what he did — including informing on his mother and brother, who were executed in front of him.
It is strange to live in a world where I can type these words in a climate-controlled skyscraper, surrounded by more food than I can eat, and supported by friends and family whom I would trust with my life; while not so far away hundreds of thousands of fellow human beings suffer and struggle and despair in an endless gray existence without even a glimmer of hope. I suppose that has always been true. And I suppose too that even a regime as entrenched as North Korea’s cannot last forever; within my lifetime, I anticipate, we will see its worst excesses quashed, whether by external force or internal reform. But that happy ending is at best years, more likely decades, away. And for the millions who have already suffered — and even for those, like Shin, who have escaped — any change may be too late.