Escape From Camp 14 is the fascinating, if at times disturbing, tale of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known escapee born in one of North Korea’s concentration camps. Journalist Blaine Harden’s masterfully multi-dimensional and compelling tale weaves Shin’s experiences in the camp, his escape, and psychological adjustment to the world beyond the barbed wire.
My interest in Escape From Camp 14 started with a feature on NPR last March (Link), but the interview didn’t just spark my interest, it reignited my fascination with what is the perhaps the most tightly controlled, institutionally barbaric society ever to have existed. It reminded me that North Korea is a place where psychopathy is not an aberration, but a cultural imperative. North Korea is a society built on lies and deception and life is forfeit for the smallest infraction. While this is true of the general society, it is even more so in the prison camps. For instance, Shin relates the story of a young girl who, in a camp classroom, was beaten to death in front of her fellow students for the sin of having five kernels of corn in her pocket. As the girl was beaten by the instructor, the other children watched, understanding that this consequence was completely normal for the camp.
As a former intelligence analyst whose specialty was North Korea, Shin’s story brought back memories of the experiences of hundreds of other defectors and escapees. Since the 1950’s, North Korea has perfected a system of prison camps into which hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have disappeared. Escape From Camp 14 provides a startling first-hand look into one of the very worst camps.
As a writer of speculative fiction I like to explore the psychopathic persona so much so that in an early review of Any Tomorrow: The Calling, the reviewer thought my character, Henry Turner, was excessively violent and sexually aggressive. After reading Escape From Camp 14 and recalling the horrors other defectors have reported over the years, there is nothing I could have written that can compare to the institutionalized mechanism for the terror of the North Korean prison camps. In comparison, they make the NAZI concentration camps seem tame and the Soviet Gulag welcoming.
For anyone who values freedom, who has an interest in humanity, or desires to know what hell is like, read Escape From Camp 14. Then try to imagine surviving it.