Tag Archives: South 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

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

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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Filed under History, Nonfiction

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

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

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


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Filed under Current Events, Nonfiction