Between The Orphan Master’s Son and Escape From Camp 14, I think I’ve had all I can take of the world of North Korea. The gulag of prison camps seems to out-brutalize the horrors of the its Russian equivalents because of how it dehumanizes even its children. Can you imagine uglier than a six-year-old girl is beaten to death by her peers at the command of the guards for hoarding a few kernels of corn? I don’t even want to try, and I’m supposed to be in the business of imagining ugly.
Blaine Harden spent years of persistent and sensitive effort building a relationship with Shin Dong-Hyuk that allowed him to elicit the information for this astounding book. Shin was, after all, carefully taught virtually from birth to trust no one, snitch on peers, parents, `or anyone else when it might afford him an extra pair of socks or a spoonful of cabbage soup. As a child, he’d eat his mother’s lunch when her back was turned knowing full well he’d get beaten with a rake or hoe when she returned. In turn, of course, every child and adult around him was ready to snitch on him for stealing that extra spoonful of soup or shirking his duty to lug rocks up the hill to build a dam. Public executions for escape were a regular feature of his life. He grew up so ignorant of the world outside his prison fence that he never heard of Pyongyang, let alone South Korea or China.
Then comes an astoundingly lucky combination of circumstances that makes his escape possible. I won’t spoil the story by relating it here because how Shin gets from camp 14 to China to South Korea to California is as intriguing as any novel you’ll ever pick up. Harrowing as that flight is, however, it’s nothing compared to the ordeal of escaping from the horrible prison of his own psychology.
Horrible as the physical imprisonment of Camp 14 was, it seems almost as nothing compared to how it imprisoned Shinn’s capacity for human intimacy. He grew up without knowing parental love or trust. The notion of friendship is utterly foreign. Lying and deception are core survival skills. Given all this, Harden’s achievement at digging out this story is astounding. Even after all he did, however, he still is not sure of some of Shinn’s story. He has no way of corroborating details, so must trust the word of someone who trusts no one and whose story has changed over and over. In a way, that’s fitting. There are depths of human cruelty here that should stay hidden in the murk. As the saying goes, “You don’t want to know.”