Thursday, May 2, 2013

It's like stealing rice from your mother

 Escape from Camp 14 is the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, a man born and raised ("raised" is a generous term) in a notorious prison camp in North Korea.  He is one of very few people to ever have escaped from a prison camp and his life story - one of constant threats, severe hunger, and terrible punishment - is a harrowing account of life under a totalitarian regime.

Escape from Camp 14 is a pretty short book.  The audio version was only about 5 hours long.  There's a lot of information packed in there, though, and to be perfectly honest - there's only so much of this sort of book a person can take.  It's not heart-warming and there aren't many moments that make you believe that people are generally good at heart.  And what's most disturbing is that this is not horror that occurred in the past, that we can hear about, shudder, and then snuggle more comfortably under our warm blankets and think, "Thank goodness that sort of thing could never happen these days."  Because that sort of thing is happening these days.  And when the people doing it have access to an arsenal of nuclear weapons that they could set off at any time.... well, that makes it even more horrifying.

So many things about North Korea are disturbing.  An entire population of people that suffers from malnutrition and starvation just so that a few people can live a luxurious life that they denounce so strongly to all their followers.  A massive cult with no real access to the outside world and the widely-held belief that their leader (and the leaders before him) is descended from heaven.  People who feel no affection, love, or loyalty for one another.  There is so much here that is hard to believe, that seems straight out of a dystopia novel.  But it is real.  And even now, when it seems as though everyone has instant access to all information, it still happens.  And you keep thinking, "There's just no way this regime can last."  But it does.  And it makes people do horrible things.  For example, when growing up, Shin would eat his mother's meals and not care that it meant she would starve for the day.  And when he found out that she and his brother were trying to escape, he turned them in and felt no remorse.  Shin had no sense of familial feeling until he left North Korea and realized that, as a general rule, most people would feel some sense of guilt at betraying their own mother.

This is one of those audiobooks that I should have stopped listening to very early on in the narration.  Blaine Harden, the author, narrates the audio version of the book, and I am sorry to say that he doesn't do his own words justice.  He speaks in a monotone that is completely at odds with the fast-paced story he relates, almost as though he spent so much time reading and editing his book that it no longer holds any real interest to him.

This is unfortunate because Shin's story really is amazing.  Honestly, everything about North Korea is amazing (and terrifying).  We get so little information about the country, but at the same time, we have enough information to know how dangerous it is.  While writing this review, I've been on Google Maps, looking up images of North Korea and its concentration camps.  And while looking at those, I've also seen user-uploaded images of just breathtaking scenery and natural beauty.  Who knows when anyone else in the world will get to see all those wonders in person?

Obviously, any story of a daring prison escape is fascinating to read, but when the prison being escaped from is a North Korean concentration camp that the government denies even exists, and when the escapee is someone who was born in that camp and knew nothing about North Korea or South Korea or any of the rest of the world, the whole story goes up, like, 500 notches.  How do you learn to trust other people?  To even interact with other people?  How much do you trust your own instincts in a completely foreign environment?  Can you ever learn to love someone else?  Shin's struggles to live in the west were not as physically brutal as those he encountered in the camp, but they were no less poignant.

All the books I have read so far on North Korea have been fascinating, though I would still rank Nothing to Envy as my favorite.  Escape From Camp 14, though, provides a very different and important perspective on life in North Korea, though its narrow focus may not make it the best introduction to learning about the country.  Still, as a story of survival and struggle, it's a winner.


  1. This sounds really powerful, if not enjoyable. I think I'll look for a print copy as I think the narration issue would grate on me.
    And I've wanted to read Nothing to Envy for a good while now, I don't know enough about North Korea.

  2. I've been looking at a few books from North Korea to read and this looks like one I should try.

  3. Nothing to Envy really was so good, but I thought this one has a lot to offer as an addition to books about North Korea!

  4. I have this but haven't gotten to it yet. I was watching something on television about North Korea, and really had no idea about quite a bit. It sounds so bleak that I have been hesitant to pick it up, but good to know that it's worth getting through.


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