Saturday, October 10, 2015

Book: Blaine Harden's "Escape From Camp 14"

I seem to have a minor fixation on North Korea.  January of 2014 I read "Nothing to Envy" which looked at North Korea from the perspective of North Koreans who had lived in the oppressive society and had escaped to South Korea.  The second book, read in May of this year, was "Without You There Is No Us"  This book came from the perspective of an American teaching in North Korea.  My latest read takes a third perspective, a North Korean who never really experienced the North Korean society but was a product of said society.

The book is Blaine Harden's "Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West".  The main 'character' of the book is Shin, a young man born in a multi-generational work camp known to the west as Camp 14.  In North Korea, when a crime against the state occurs, three generations of the family are imprisoned and sent to work camps.  If a father commits a political crime, his children, siblings, spouse, and parents  all go.  Shin is the child of two political prisoners who were allowed to have sex as a reward for hard work.

Shin grows up fixated on food.  He learns he will be rewarded if he snitches.  He receives a very basic education by strict teachers.  He is unaware of most of the outside world.  He witnesses a teacher beat a girl to death because she had a few kernels of corn in her pocket.  He snitches on his mother and brother and watches them being executed.  All this seems normal to him as it is all he has known all his life until he meets a new prisoner from the outside.

He and the prisoner hatch a plot to escape.  Shin only wants to escape so that he can get more food.  During the escape attempt the other prisoner dies on an electric fence ... and Shin crawls over him to freedom.  He eventually makes his way to China and freedom.

Shin's story is tragic and a bit strange.  He has trouble telling all the truth to the author as he is guilty about what he had to do to survive in Camp 14.  The changing story distracts from the narrative a bit making you wonder what is true and what is a fable created by Shin.

I enjoyed this read despite it's possible veering from the truth every now and then.  I gave it four out of five stars on Goodreads.

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