South Korea, like Japan, has had a renaissance in the last century or so. With a national attitude of always striving to achieve, the small nation has international auto companies, a huge online presence, and is now beginning to export its music and culture as well.
Just to the north is a country that, during the same period of time, has travelled backwards by decades. Unable to feed itself with its rocky soil and outdating farming practices, the same ethinc population is nearly three inches shorter than its well-fed southern counterparts.
But even in this strange world, there is a deeper hell to fall into. Their prison camps, scattered across the countryside, are a nightmare within a nightmare. These are the places that are used to control a population that watched as much as 10% of its population starve to death in the 1990s.
This is the hell that is Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden. In the worst of North Korea's prison camps, the people living there aren't being rehabilitated by labor. People sent to these are never expected to leave again. They're completely self-sufficient, with the prisoners even growing the food for the guards who live on-base. There's plenty of labor to go around, and even schools for the children.
At least the adults who are sent here have memories of their lives before they got here to hold on to. They remember a life outside of breaking rocks in the quarry, outside of less-than-subsistence farming, of the freedom to choose one's partner, rather than being assigned a mate for good behavior.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born here. For the first 14 years of his life, he had no idea about the world outside the fences of his camp. Unbelievably, the children of Camp 14 aren't even indoctrinated into the personality cult of Kim Il-Sung and his descendants. Where the Dear Leader's portrait hangs in virtually every classroom and public space in the country, the rules of the camp are posted.
Violation of Rule Three, Subsection 2 - Anyone who steals or hides any kind of food in the work camp will be shot immediately - was the cause of his six year old classmate being beaten to death in front of the class. In this twisted mockery of society, ideals of filial piety and the value of children are mostly unheard of. Starving children steal food from their equally starving parents and are beaten for it. They're taught that they are here because of the sins of their parents, and that the way to redeem themselves is to accept the guards as their teachers. And as Shin learned early on, any infraction against these rules could, and did, result in a swift and painful death.
Escape never really occurred to Shin. He had no real idea that life would be different anywhere else. But when he was imprisoned and tortured following the failed escape attempt of his mother and brother, his outlook changed. He was placed in a cell with a man who had lived outside of North Korea for a time. It wasn't the brutality of his captors that made him dream of freedom. It wasn't watching his mother and brother be hanged, or a teen's curiosity at the larger world outside.
It was the stories of the banquets that the Chinese throw for any reason they can come up with. It was the dream of white rice and roast pork, from a child who had grown up on a thin gruel, with the occasional bit of Chinese cabbage and salt thrown in. It was the dream of eating until he was full that motivated Shin to be not only the first person to escape Camp 14, but the first person born in a labor camp to escape North Korea, and eventually make it all the way to the West.
This is no Elie Wiesel's Night. There is no holding on to their humanity for the children born here, because they were never taught to have any in the first place. There's no message of the strength of human spirit or any other platitudes like that. This is simply one man's story of growing up in hell, and escaping to a world he's never learned how to function in.
Highs: If nothing else, the reader learns to believe in blind luck, because after Shin manages to escape the prison camp itself, a string of much-needed good luck helps him along until he makes it to the South Korean embassy.
Lows: This is possibly the most unrelentingly brutal, despairing book I've ever come across.
Verdict: Perhaps the best accounting of a North Korean prison camp, but plan to follow reading this with something more uplifting.
Further Reading: Nothing to Envy, The Reluctant Communist