Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West is the fascinating, raw story of a man born in captivity. Treated as worthless but for the hard labor he performed, Shin Dong-hyuk grew up in believing he had no worth. His life, his mind, his psychology were all formed into a twisted, feral persona.
It led to him falsely accusing his mother and brother of murder in exchange for more food. Believing Shin knew more than he was letting on, the guards hung him by his hands and feet from the ceiling. Then, they lit a fire beneath him. Demanding he reveal all that he knew, they let out the ropes that held him aloft until his back began to burn from the flames. He tried to shift out of the way. The guards plunged a steel hook into his torso to hold him still.
To this day, he bears the mental and physical scars.
Once released from torture, he was taken care of by another prisoner. This prisoner described the world outside the camp. This world possessed food in plentiful supply, in various kinds, in easier reach. Unable to remember the last time he had felt full, Shin yearned for the outside world where he could eat all the grilled meat he wanted. Indeed, Harden summed it thus, “Freedom, in Shin’s mind, was just another word for grilled meat.”
Escape From Camp 14 is a difficult read. Not only does it describe the horrendous conditions of the political labor camps, but it also helps to illustrate the complications of North and South Korea reunification. The population of North Korea is sheltered and psychologically manipulated into a dependent mindset. To extract them out of that mindset and insert them into the outside world is an intense project, to say the least. The story of Shin is of an extreme case.
Yet, this book offers hope. Besides its horrifying descriptions of torture, it is the story of one man’s journey toward freedom. If one in Shin’s position can come out of North Korea and adapt inch by agonizing inch, it means it is possible for many others. His account reminds us that transformation is not so cut and dried, that the road toward healing is no Disney tale. Shin is still wracked by his experiences and guilt to this day.
It is important to note: the original copy of Escape from Camp 14 omitted Shin’s real motive for falsely accusing his mother and brother. I read the copy with the revised introduction and I recommend any interested reader to procure the same.
Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West was written by Blaine Harden, published by Penguin Books on March 29, 2012 and contains 256 pages.