REVIEW : A Survivor’s tale

Leita Boucicaut | Contributor

From 2006 to 2008 I lived in Seoul, South Korea, where I taught English as a second language. During that time, my curiosity about Korean culture knew no bounds. Complex and passionate people, Koreans have an almost insatiable need for success that I have yet to experience elsewhere.

My interest in Korean culture did not stop with South Korea. When speaking with my students and friends, I learned a little bit about North Korea and hoped to visit one day, if for no other reason than to compare the north to the south. I was able to go to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where I got a strong sense of the almost paranoid need to keep people from looking at or taking pictures of certain areas on either side of the border. We could take a picture of this gate, but not that one. We could photograph North Korea, but only from a certain distance. The rules were strict and seemingly exaggerated, but they only increased my curiosity about what lay beyond those fences.

The Peace Bridge. Photo by Writer.

Koreans leave notes for the North Korean Families. Photo by writer

Unfortunately, a five-day guided trip to North Korea costs at least a thousand dollars. Visitors are escorted everywhere and restrictions abound. After deciding against such an expensive trip, I held on, instead, to my understanding that the majority of South Koreans I spoke to wanted to reunite with North Korea. Politics aside, many people wanted to reconcile with their families.

North Korea seen by a North Korean

I first heard about Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Journalist, Blaine Harden, on the radio. A story about hope and perseverance through the eyes of a political prisoner, this book not only gives a detailed account of a person’s struggle for survival, but also uncovers some little known facts about North Korea.

Born as Shin In Geun, and now known as Shin Dong-Hyuk, this book is Shin’s personal odyssey from slavery to freedom. To date, he is the only known person to have been born in a North Korean prison camp and escaped.

North Korean labor camps have existed far longer than any Soviet or Nazi camps. Along with those camps comes a plethora of human rights abuses that many people can neither relate to nor compare. The camp Shin grew up in was not just any prison camp. Camp 14 is notorious for being one of the most heavily guarded and deadly camps in North Korea. It is one of the few camps where children of dissenters and dissenters’ family members were raised completely cut off from both the world and their own country. These children had little to no knowledge of the political system, nor did they have any concept of money, love or loyalty.

Camp 14 was about survival. Snitching on classmates, co-workers and family members was a way of life. As with other prisoners, Shin embraced this way of living, which in turn helped him acquire much needed food and escape certain execution.

Photo by writer

A little perspective

When someone picks up a book on an escaped prisoner’s life story, he or she may be wary of reading about such harrowing experiences, but Harden approaches the story in a very thoughtful manner. He takes care to insert both historical and present-day facts about North Korea’s economic, human rights and political issues while still maintaining a hold on Shin’s story. These additional facts help to give the reader a more well-rounded understanding of the inner workings of a country that has been largely cut off from the world for nearly 60 years.

The beatings, the scrounging for food, the witnessing of his mother and brother’s execution…these are all told in a dispassionate way that allows the reader to take a step back and visualize the events without being completely overwhelmed.

In some ways, one can say that Harden’s writing was influenced by Shin.  He often told these stories in a deadened tone, recounting his own life story as though he himself were a spectator. As the reader heads further into Shin’s daily life, the reason for this becomes evident.

Shin’s instinctive need for survival while at the camp overtook any other sense, and emotions rarely factored into his decisions. It is this detached attitude that allowed Shin to not only survive the camp, but escape it.  It is also what he most struggles with today.

“I did not know about sympathy or sadness,” he said in the book, “They educated us from birth so that we were not capable of normal human emotions. Now that I am out, I am learning to be emotional. I have learned to cry. I feel like I am becoming human.”

***

This is not a story about hatred, nor is it a story that tries to polarize people. Escape from Camp 14 simply documents the life of a man who witnessed and experienced human rights abuses that were, to him at the time, merely a reality of life.

It is only since his escape in 2005 that Shin has come to realize the atrocities he not only witnessed but took part in. He has been trying to come to terms with them ever since. Guilt-ridden for his part in both his mother’s and brother’s execution, there are some memories that will always be hard for him to accept.

“As an adolescent, he was furious with his mother for beating him, for risking escape, for causing his torture. He did not grieve when she was hanged. But as an adult survivor, as his emotional distance from the camp increases, his fury has given way to guilt and self loathing. ‘These are emotions that slowly started to come out from within me,’ he said. Having seen firsthand how loving families behave, he cannot bear the memory of the kind of son he once was.”

Stories like these need to be told. There are places all over the world where human rights are abused on a daily basis.  It is only by exposing ourselves to the different issues in this world that we can begin to bring about change. It is only by learning about different cultures and perspectives that we can learn compassion and approach conflict, not with anger or hatred, but with a willingness to exchange ideas and move toward peace.

Note : Excerpts in this article have been taken from Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.

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