Travelmag Banner

Escape from North Korea: a survivor’s tale

ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden, published by Viking.

Escape From Camp 14 begins with a statement by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the official mouthpiece of North Korea’s regime. It reads, ‘There is no “human rights issue” in this country, as everyone leads the most dignified and happy life’. By their reckoning, the astounding memoirs of survival in the country’s most notorious political prison, Shin Dong-hyuk, read as little more than a fairytale.

But according to Human Rights Watch, more than 200,000 civilians in North Korea are locked away in these death camps.

For decades North Korean officials have denied their existence, while continually rounding up civilians from all parts of society and locking them away for subjection to various forms of torture. But in 2007, Mr. Shin’s treacherous flight on foot through North Korea, China, South Korea, and finally the United States of America, is the most truthful description of one man’s journey through hell on the path to a new life.

Camp 14 could easily be taken straight from George Orwell’s 1984, where the “irredeemables” are born into slavery. These are grounds where food was scarce and pregnant women disappeared. Subsequently born and raised in Camp 14, Mr. Shin’s crime was to have been labelled a “bad seed”, a product of having previous family members categorised as enemies of the state. Under an archaic law created by the country’s Eternal President, Kim Il-sung, any traitor and their family members had three generations sent to a gulag to breed out the “tainted blood”.

Since Mr. Shin never knew what parental love meant, he viewed prison guards as his parents, accepting their orders without question. The only chance to cleanse his tainted blood would be to denounce his family. When Mr. Shin learned that his biological mother and brother were stealing food and plotting to escape, he reported the details to a prison guard, but was accused of being party to the plan. After a horrific interrogation where he was hung upside down over a roasting fire with hooks inserted into his abdomen, Mr. Shin’s “reward” was a front row seat at the execution of his mother and brother.

One quality about Mr. Shin is that his resolve never weakened. If anything, he felt indifferent to the suffering around him, a consequence of being indoctrinated to recite the camp’s 10 commandments or risk being “shot immediately”. At an inspection while in first grade, he watched a pistol-bearing guard order a 6 year-old girl to kneel before the class, who then beat the child to death with a pointer for hiding five corn kernels in her pockets. Mr. Shin had become desensitised to violence, a result of being treated more like an animal than a human, incapable of trusting anyone. This all changed, however, when a man named Park shared Mr. Shin’s cell.

A Pyongyang-born former public official educated in eastern Europe, Park opened up Mr. Shin’s world to new ideas. He learned of Pyongyang’s whereabouts and that the world was round. The two developed a brotherhood and iron-will to survive. Between Mr. Shin’s expertise of every inch within Camp 14 and Park’s knowledge of the outside world, an escape attempt seemed possible. But Park was killed within inches of freedom. Mr. Shin survived by using his companion’s corpse as protection while digging under the electric fence.

Having risked his life to get out of Camp 14 and then stealing food and clothing to trek across North Korea, Mr. Shin made it across to China without being detected. But his “poor North Korean defector” story did not attract much sympathy from ethnic Koreans and locals alike, a reaction borne from apathy and fear of reprisals from Chinese authorities, who were returning escapees to North Korea. With nearly all hope lost, he reluctantly trusted a South Korean journalist working in Shanghai to join him in a taxi and ride to the gates of the South Korean consulate, a move that led to the journalist being punished by local authorities after Mr. Shin recuperated in the consulate of the land he once believed was “the enemy”.

As Mr. Shin would soon discover, landing in the capitalist South Korea to start a new life did not automatically heal all scars. His nightmares from the past – executions of his family members, images of Park’s death, and thoughts of the torture his father underwent as payback for Mr. Shin’s escape, started to catch up with him. The paranoia which offered him protection behind barbed wire imprisoned him in a land where he was supposedly free. Mr. Shin had no social life and slumped into depression. And as a defector, he never felt welcome in South Korea, weighed down by a sense of inferiority compared to local compatriots. He later jumped at the chance to volunteer for a not-for-profit organisation in Los Angeles, to raise greater awareness about the plight of North Korean defectors, but for a time failed to find the spark in motivating target audiences to do more and inspire change. In one instance, a Korean-American teenager asked if he had fought for the North Korean Army. It is a shame that when North Korea is mentioned in western countries, the first images that come to mind are images of rocket launches, goose-stepping soldiers marching alongside military hardware, or even Team America: World Police’s lampooning the late Kim Jong-il.

Mr. Shin’s words about how he coped through the ordeal are sickening and blunt. The writing style adopted by the author, Blaine Harden, is straightforward and designed to shock. Mr. Harden, a veteran reporter for PBS Frontline, interviewed Mr. Shin for over two years, forcing him to recall excruciating details from a man reluctant to step into the spotlight. The language and imagery is so confronting, it may have been written in blood. Equally as disturbing are extracts from former officials who fled North Korea, confirming the endemic corruption which resulted in millions of dollars being siphoned into the pockets of Kim Jong-il. Mr. Harden also analyses the wider impact of relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. He dismisses former President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy (also advocated by his successor Roh Moo-hyun), which advocated closer ties between North and South Korea, as ineffective because it failed to raise the issue of human rights for defectors. There is no praise for the alternative hardline approach adopted by conservative leader Lee Myung-bak either. Mr. Harden’s analysis is that South Korean civilians are interested in politicians exchanging rhetoric as part of a proxy war. They want peace and economic stability, But when it comes to reunification, “not immediately” is the summary. Mr. Shin’s assessment is that the rights of defectors run counter to the interests of South Korean people; it matters to “only .001 per cent of people”, he declares.

North Korean defectors do not have celebrity endorsements to raise greater awareness for their cause, so Mr. Harden’s words and Mr. Shin’s courage are powerful ammunition, representing yet another reason to despise the psychotic regime enslaving its own people. Escape From Camp 14 rates as one of the best books ever written on the indignity of life and death in North Korea’s vast labyrinth of political prisons.

This book review originally appeared on the Foreign Policy Journal website,, on 11 December 2012. The book itself is available at Amazon.

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines
Asia Pacific