Tag Archives: North Korea

A survivor’s eye-opening tale of life in the North Korean gulag

A review of Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden

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Americans’ sources of knowledge about life in North Korea are limited to journalistic accounts of the diplomatic antics of the ruling Kim dynasty, which reveal practically nothing, and a tiny number of credible and highly readable books written by Westerners with rare access to the facts. In recent years, two stand out: Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick, and, amazingly, a novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. (Links lead to my reviews of these two excellent books.) With Escape from Camp 14, veteran reporter Blaine Harden has contributed the latest of these reports, and in many ways the most revealing.

Escape from Camp 14 chronicles the life of Shin Dong-hyuk, only of only three people ever known to have escaped from a North Korean labor camp and made it to the West. Shin was born in the camp, his mother “assigned” to his father by guards to bear children. Both were prisoners. A superficial reading of Shin’s story might suggest that he is a monster. Reading the book will help you understand how he could commit unforgivable acts as natural and necessary steps in a ferocious day-to-day struggle for survival. “His context had been twenty-three years in an open-air cage run by men who hanged his mother, shot his brother, crippled his father, murdered pregnant women, beat children to death, taught him to betray his family, and tortured him over a fire.”

As one of Harden’s North Korean expatriate sources explained, “‘guards were free to indulge their appetites and eccectricities, often preying on attractive young women prisoners, who would usually consent to sex for better treatment. ‘If this resulted in babies, women and their babies were killed,’ [the source] said, noting that he had personally seen newborns clubbed to death with iron rods.”

When Shin fled Camp 14, it was not a vision of freedom that gave him the extraordinary courage required. It was thoughts of grilled meat. To understand this extraordinary statement, you’ll have to read the book.

Blaine Harden appeared recently in San Francisco at the World Affairs Council of Northern California in a conversation with Philip Yun, Executive Director of the Ploughshares Fund, a former U.S. diplomat who is Korean-American and has studied the peninsula for many years. Harden’s soft-spoken, sometimes light-hearted presentation underlined the surreal quality of Shin’s experiences inside the North Korean gulag. Responding to Yun’s questions, Harden spoke at some length about the many steps he had taken to verify Shin’s story.

As Harden relates, “North Korea’s labor camps have now existed twice as long as the Soviet Gulag and about twelve times longer than the Nazi concentration camps. . . There are six camps, according to South Korea’s intelligence agency and human rights groups. The biggest is thirty-one miles long and twenty-five miles wide, an area larger than the city of Los Angeles.”

The author asks why there is so little awareness in the West about the North Korean camps, and why nothing has been done about them. As the Washington Post editorialized upon publishing Harden’s first account of Shin’s life: “High school students in America debate why President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t bomb the rail lines to Hitler’s camps. Their children may ask, a generation from now, why the West stared at far clearer satellite images of Kim Jong Il’s camps, and did nothing.”

Blaine Harden’s journalistic credits include the Washington Post, the Economist, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, and PBS Frontline. He reported for many years from Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia for the Washington Post, and it was on assignment to write the unwritten stories about North Korea for the Post that he encountered Shin Dong-hyuk.

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Barack Obama’s foreign and military policy viewed from the inside

A review of Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, by David E. Sanger

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When I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, I expected a great deal from his Presidency — much too much, it’s clear in hindsight. What I didn’t expect was that as President he would exercise U.S. military power almost as aggressively as George W. Bush. As the subtitle of this excellent book hints so broadly, the apparently anti-war candidate Obama quickly morphed in office into a resolute, hands-on Commander in Chief.

In his campaign, Obama had “promised to restore traditional American ‘engagement’ by talking and listening to America’s most troubling adversaries and reluctant partners. His supporters saw a welcome turn away from the ‘with us or against us’ black-and-whites of the Bush years. His critics saw naivete and softness. Both have been surprised. This is a book about those surprises.”

In practice, Obama learned that his brand of engagement yielded little more than vitriolic rhetoric from Iranian mullahs, North Korean generals, and the Pakistani military. What has proved far more effective are the actions he could take consistent with his more sophisticated view of American power: a massive increase in drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; the country’s first-ever (known) use of cyberwarfare in a targeted attack on Iran’s nuclear program, along with increasingly brutal sanctions on the country and its government; the ever-growing use of Special Forces in operations such as the murder of Osama bin Laden; and a pronounced “pivot” from Europe to Asia in combating the rise of China, as exemplified by the opening of a new military base in Australia. While ending U.S. participation in our “war of choice” in Iraq and beginning the pullout from Afghanistan, President Obama has sharply stepped up our use of the weapons of war in a growing number of undeclared and sometimes undercover hostilities.

Make no mistake about it: Barack Obama has made an idelible mark on the U.S. military and intelligence services, sharpening their missions and reshaping their priorities, and all while forcing them to live within more limited means. And anyone who might be tempted to think that Obama acted this way out of weakness needs to understand that great extent to which he made decisions at crucial times in the face of opposition from nearly all those around him — in giving the green light to the Navy SEAL mission to kill bin Laden, and in deciding to ask Hosni Mubarak to resign. As Sanger writes, “‘He personally basically overrode just about his entire government,’ said one official in the room, noting that Gates and Clinton were still actively opposed, ‘Look, this is what I’m going to do,’ Obama said, according to notes of the meeting. ‘I’m going to call [Mubarak] now.'”

All this, and more, comes to light in the five sections that form the backbone of this book. Sanger writes about each of the leading hotspots in turn: Afghanistan and Pakistan; Iran; Egypt; China and North Korea. This is truly world-class reporting, informed by sources at the very highest levels of the U.S. government.

Sanger concludes, “It is too early to know if the emerging Obama Doctrine — a lighter footprint around the world, and a reliance on coalitions to deal with global problems that do not directly threaten American security — will prove a lasting formula. His effort at ‘rebalancing’ away from the quagmires in the Middle East toward the continent of greatest promise in the future — Asia — was long overdue. But it is a change of emphasis more than a change of direction. Obama proved her was adaptable to new realities, what James Fallows rightly called ‘the main trait we can hope for in a president.'”

If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to be a 30-year veteran of The New York Times and serve as its Chief Washington Correspondent, read this extraordinary book with an eye on those sources, both named and anonymous, and their revelations, which pop up seemingly on every page. You’ll see, then, how very deeply embedded in the fabric of official Washington is this one newspaper — a newspaper that serves as the source of an extraordinary proportion of the stories that make their way onto evening news broadcasts and the front pages of other papers around the world. In laying bare the pattern of Barack Obama’s surprisingly aggressive use of military power, Confront and Conceal is just as effective in revealing David Sanger’s unusually high-level access at the White House, the CIA, and the Pentagon.

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North Korea, Afghanistan, China, Iran: they all come together in a superb spy novel

A review of The Ghost War, by Alex Berenson

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Contemporary novels about espionage tend to focus on the rise of China, North Korea, Iran, or Middle Eastern terrorism. The Ghost War, the second of Alex Berenson’s six spy thrillers, brings all four of those themes to the fore in a heart-pounding story that thrusts the CIA ‘s preeminent soldier-spy, John Wells, into circumstances that threaten not just his life but also the beginning of war between China and the U.S.

The Ghost War opens on the coast of North Korea, where the CIA fumbles the extraction of their most valuable informer within the country. Soon afterwards, Wells is dispatched on a seemingly unrelated mission to Afghanistan, while his lover, Jennifer Exley, pursues the search for a mole within the CIA. As the story unfolds, these three threads — and more — become intricately intertwined, and the suspense builds toward a powerful climax in the vicinity of where the novel opened.

The Ghost War can be read alone but is likely to be more enjoyable if taken up after reading The Faithful Spy, the first of his novels about John Wells. The Ghost War picks up Wells’ career after the heroic role he played in the earlier novel, for which he has gained considerable fame.

With The Faithful Spy, published in 2006, Alex Berenson won the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list as well as an Edgar Award for best first novel. However, he left his job as an investigative reporter for the Times only in 2010, after more than a decade there. Berenson’s reporting skills, honed in reporting from Baghdad and probing the Bernie Madoff scandal, serve him well in his new profession. They’re reflected in the depth and technical detail of the story and the realistic scenarios he paints. He also writes well, and he has mastered the twin skills of plotting and characterization. The Ghost War is, simply, outstanding,

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Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers, Spy Stories

An unsparing tale of life in the living hell of North Korea

A review of The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

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Three years ago Barbara Demick’s penetrating journalistic skills revealed the ever-present desperation of North Korean life in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Now comes Adam Johnson with an equally brilliant book, a novel, that digs beneath the artificial veneer of life in North Korea to examine the mindless lives of its people, from the lowliest convict to the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, himself.

Johnson’s Orwellian story surveys life in an orphanage; the experience of a tunnel rat, trained in hand-to-hand combat in the tunnels leading under the DMZ to South Korea; espionage and kidnapping trips to Japan in “fishing boats”; the life and lifestyle of the country’s elite military commanders and of the Dear Leader himself; the vain efforts of an official torturer to retain his humanity; and the semblance of life that is existence in a North Korean prison mine, where citizens who run afoul of officialdom are worked to death underground with picks and shovels.

Johnson’s themes are the loss of identity in a setting where every aspect of life is controlled from above; the disparity between truth and propaganda; and the struggle between love and loyalty.

The experience of reading this complex and wide-ranging tale is shattering. It took me twice as long to finish this book as it might ordinarily have done, because so very often I had to set it aside to catch my breath or stanch the tears that threatened to come. I was deeply moved by Barbara Demick’s book. Adam Johnson’s novel upended me, with its unsparing portrayal of the extremes of pain and degradation to which the North Korean people are subjected.

Adam Johnson is a San Francisco short story writer and novelist who teaches creative writing at Stanford. He spent three years researching this novel, including a trip to North Korea, where he visited several cities and learned first-hand what life is like under a truly totalitarian regime.

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Filed under Contemporary Themes, Trade Fiction

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick

A review of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick

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If anyone ever tries to tell you that politics doesn’t matter, I suggest you raise the case of North Korea. Now, I don’t mean the big abstracts like “Communism” and “dictatorship” and “rogue state.” I’m referring to the little things, the day-to-day realities experienced by individual people who are caught up in the unique political environment called “North Korea.” Here are a few glimpses snatched from Barbara Demick’s brilliant study of the subject:

  • The elementary schoolteacher whose class shrank from 50 to 15 in the depth of the famine in 1997-1999 because the children had first lost the energy to walk to school — and then simply died.
  • The doctor who was instructed by her superior at a hospital not to squander scarce penicillin on a man dying of a bacterial infection because he was a “class criminal.”
  • The five-foot-tall man who was accepted into the North Korean Army because its height requirement had been lowered in the early 1990s due to the stunting of the younger generation.
  • The young couple, desperately in love for more than a decade, who both had plans to defect to South Korea but were so schooled in distrust that neither could confide in the other — with the result that they met again only years later in the South.

Nothing to Envy — the title is taken from a North Korean children’s song extolling the virtues of the Fatherland — is based on Barbara Demick’s work as a reporter over eight years for the Los Angeles Times. Demick made nine trips to North Korea from 2001 to 2008 and interviewed approximately 100 North Korean defectors, most of them now living in South Korea or China. Nothing to Envy revolves around the stories of six individuals from the northeastern city of Chongjin, formerly a heavy industrial center where all the factories and all the businesses closed in succession as the country’s economic crisis steadily deepened over the years.

The stories told in Nothing to Envy cast a bright light on the tragedy of North Korea. They make for compelling reading. And they make it abundantly clear why politics matters.

ISBN-10: 0385523904

ISBN-13: 978-0385523905

ASIN: B002ZB26AO

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