With the stress of classes, essays, and all the reading that comes along with them, I’ve found it difficult to find the time or energy to do any extracurricular reading in the past few years. It’s easy to get consumed by university life, and, with this in mind, I’m aware of the impossibility of the sell I’m about to try to make. If I came up to a friend while they were in the middle of a German translation or attempting to sift through Medieval canon law and said, “Hey, why don’t you also read this book about a North Korean labor camp?” they would probably assume it was a joke. Technically that is what I am encouraging anyone reading this review to do, so let me phrase it in a different way: I think you should take some time out of your hectic schedule to get a little perspective that will make the stresses of university life seem a lot more manageable.
In Escape from Camp 14 journalist Blaine Harden tells the story of Shin In Geun, the only person born in a North Korean labor camp to escape. Shin lived in the labor camp because of the alleged sins of his parents, and he is therefore seen, transitively, by the North Korean government as a traitor himself. The North Korean government denies the existence of political prison camps, despite the fact that they are visible on satellite imagery. In 2009, the North Korean Central News Agency gave a statement saying, “There is no ‘human rights issue’ in this country, as everyone leads the most dignified and happy life.” Shin, and the thousands of others who remain imprisoned, might beg to differ.
The conditions in the camps are inhumane in every sense of the word. The ideas of love, family, or morality do not exist for those born inside the camps (as opposed to those sent to a camp). This makes the reading experience jarring and distinct from other books about concentration camps. When a young girl in his class is beaten to death in front of the students for hoarding five corn kernels in her pocket, Shin, due to his upbringing, believes the punishment to be just and fair. Harden relates these experiences in unadorned, straightforward prose that makes them all the more memorable. Interspersed with Shin’s story, Harden provides wider knowledge about the overall situation in North Korea, creating context for Shin’s particular story. The narrowing and widening of the scope allows readers to comprehend that while Shin’s life seems extraordinary to us, the statistics show that he is, in the context of his own countrymen, actually fairly ordinary. Escape from Camp 14 is a difficult read on the basis of content, but the language is simple and unpretentious. It is a testament to its author that he understands that being unashamedly, brutally honest is the only way in which to tell the story of a man who was denied every human right, including the right to a conscience.
Photo credit: Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden