Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden, Mantle, RRP£16.99/Viking, RRP$26.95, 256 pages
Shin In Geun watched anxiously as his friend tried to escape through the fence that separated them from freedom. But as the sparks and odour of burning flesh quickly made clear, Park Yong Chul’s dream was dead.
“Park had stopped moving … The weight of his body pulled down the bottom strand of wire, pinning it against the snowy ground and creating a small gap in the fence,” Blaine Harden writes in his excellent account, Escape from Camp 14. There was no time for remorse. Shin was determined to flee the North Korean gulag where he had spent every day of his 23 years. “Without hesitation, Shin crawled over his friend’s body, using it as a kind of insulating pad.”
Harden, a former east Asia correspondent for the Washington Post, explains that Shin is the only person born inside a North Korean labour camp known to have escaped. His tale is a stark reminder that, whatever the external threat posed by Pyongyang, the regime’s most potent weapon is directed on its own people, especially the estimated 200,000 prisoners in its gruesome prison camps.
Apart from his dramatic escape, which took him across the border to China and later to South Korea and the US, Shin’s story is not unusual. He was just one of many North Koreans born into captivity in Camp 14, a five-decade-old gulag located in central North Korea that houses about 15,000 prisoners, many of them political. His crime was simple: two of his uncles fled to South Korea after the Korean war, and so the remaining family members paid the price.
Shin was unlucky to be born. In Camp 14, prisoners had to memorise 10 rules, including one that “should sexual physical contact occur without approval, the perpetrators will be shot immediately”. But some prisoners were brought together in “reward” marriages, a sort of payment in kind for exceptional work or for informing on fellow inmates. Shin’s father received his wife because of “his skill in operating a metal lathe”.
Harden paints a bleak picture that makes the rest of impoverished North Korea seem rich by comparison. Shin ate “corn porridge, pickled cabbage, and cabbage soup … nearly every day for 23 years”. He would catch rats and, after roasting them, would chew their “flesh, bones, and tiny feet”.
By the time he was four, Shin had witnessed his first execution. Ten years later, he watched another, as his mother and brother were killed for plotting to escape. Shin was interrogated for eight months about the plan. “Guards stripped Shin, tied ropes to his ankles and wrists, and suspended him from a hook in the ceiling,” Harden writes. “They lowered him over a fire. He passed out when his flesh began to burn.”
On another occasion, a guard hacked off one of Shin’s fingers with a kitchen knife as punishment for dropping a sewing machine. Shin had seen guards beat babies to death with iron bars. He himself was no angel. Along with the other children, he had often participated in beatings of his classmates.
Shin himself later reveals a dark secret. He confesses to Harden that he informed on his mother and brother, sending them to their deaths. In abandoning his family, he was making sure not to break rule number one, which said “any witness to an attempted escape who fails to report it will be shot immediately”.
Like many North Koreans who have defected, Shin has had trouble adjusting to his new homes, first in South Korea and later in the US. In a speech to a Korean-American church in Seattle, Shin explains how the regime stripped the prisoners of their ability to show human emotion. “I am learning to be emotional,” Harden recounts him saying. “I escaped physically [but] I haven’t escaped psychologically.”
Alongside Nothing to Envy, a superb book about life in North Korea by Barbara Demick, Escape from Camp 14 is a valuable read that casts a welcome spotlight on the most despicable regime on the planet.
Demetri Sevastopulo is the FT’s Asia news editor