ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14, by Blaine Harden, is no beach read. It brings to mind a host of qualifiers, as searing, harrowing, distressing, gut-wrenching. Remarkably, none of these mar the clean, spare copy as it reveals Shin-Dong Hyuk’s life and subsequent flight from the North Korean political prison camp where he was born. More accurately, Hyuk was bred in Camp 14 to be another slave in the service of the totalitarian regime led by Kim Jon II. Were not Harden a writer with impeccable journalist creds, I would have found it impossible to wrap my mind around this particular detail, Call me naïve, but I would like to believe that slave breeding receded into the mists of history. After all that has been published about concentration camps and gulags, I want to believe that they were aberrations and that having learnt about them, we of the global community will see to that this sort of evil can never flourish again. Harden’s book allows yanks my security blanket out of my hands. It jolts me out of my First World citizen’s comfort zone and makes me uncomfortable enough to consider certain questions—can I aspire to be my brother’s keeper? Will I remain silent while hunger, torture, and slavery exist? These are not thoughts take to the beach. Or are they?
I think they are. I think that the least a citizen of the vastly privileged First World can to is to inform herself of what goes on beyond the confines of her village. That is no fun task. For one thing, it makes me question my sense of entitlement to freedom, justice, a roof over my head, four square meals a day. But Harden’s intent is not to induce guilt in well fed, cosseted Americans. I do not his portrayal of Hyuk particularly sympathetic. It is clear, sober and makes no appeals to emotion. Somehow this very refusal to add bathos to the record of many seasons in hell makes this a remarkably credible book. That and a sufficiency of footnotes.
That the per capita income of North Koreans is lower than that of the Sudan, Congo and Laos will never become a burning issue in Tater Hollow. Neither will the fact that tin North Korea, the state controls most of its citizens’ bodily function—there is a quota for excrement to be used as fertiliser and in political prisoner camps unauthorised sexual contact is punishable by death. But then, there the question of torture a Spanish Inquisitor would blush to use. There are amputations, burning and brutal killings of children who happen not to belong to the politically reliable. ”The (ruling Kim) family maintains at least eight country houses…Nearly all of them have movie theaters, baseball courts, and shooting ranges. Several have indoor swimming pools, along with entertainment centers for bowling and roller skating. Satellite pictures show a full size horseracing track, a private train station and a water park. A private yacht which has a fifty-meter pool with water slides…” The Kim feast on “…beef raised by body guards on a special cattle ranch, and their apples come from an organic orchard where sugar, a rare and costly commodity in the North, is added to the soil to sweeten the fruit.” This while political prisoner are beaten to death for hiding five grains of corn.” Knowing this tends to cast a pall on one’s cozy apathy.
So here is my recommendation–make yourself uncomfortable. Read this book, perhaps not at the beach, but at a place that will allow you to imagine the unimaginable. Learn of how someone bred to be a slave finds his way to redemption. Ultimately, this is the story of a triumph over adversity. It is not all hearts and flowers. Hyuk’s struggle to integrate himself in a much freer society continues. He deserves to be known and Harden deserves praise for doing a superb job of telling this story.
By the way, Harden won his journalistic creds at The Washington Post, where he served as as Bureau Chief in East Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. Currently, he reports for Public Broadcasting Services and contributes to The Economist.