To Never Forget, One Must First Know
Book Review: Harden, Blaine. Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. New York: Penguin Group, 2012. 220 pages. ISBN: 978-0-230-75468-3
by Steven Denney
Covered But Not Know | North Korea is heavily covered in the media but the content of the coverage is such that the country never remains long in global society’s collective conscious; thus North Korea has both the burden and the benefit of being well-known but never actually “Remembered.” Papers of record — say, the Guardian – tell the Anglophone community that North Korea is an international pariah whose raison d’être is to extract aid and concessions from the international community in order to prop up the ruling elite and maintain the rule of a paternal dictator — the latest of which is current leader Kim Jong-un. Leading figures in North Korea may catch a headline every so often, but what about everyone else? What about the people?
Life is hard in North Korea. Since the breakdown in the Public Distribution System in the mid-1990s and the famine that swept through the country later the same decade, food has become something more than a scarce commodity, electricity a luxury, and regular paychecks and functioning factories practically a cause for national nostalgia. During the period when the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, encouraged people to make a national sacrifice by eating only two meals per day and endure along with their Socialist brothers and sisters a great “Arduous March,” people began doing what would have a decade earlier been unthinkable—defect. Since then, defections have risen significantly and the stories of defectors’ lives have made their way into the mainstream by way of news articles, speeches, and books.
While only in the last two months has the North Korean government itself gone on something of a PR offensive on the defector question (see here and here) , a number of books have emerged since 2000 which bring the issue forward more forcefully.
Starting with Kang Chol-hwan’s (2001) groundbreaking work, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, and picking up momentum with Barbara Demick’s (2010) well-known book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, the outside world, more specifically the English-speaking world, has begun to learn in greater detail of the terrible living conditions within North Korea and of the gross human rights violations perpetrated by the North Korean government against its own people, particularly inside the forced-labor camps scattered across the country. Though Kang and Demick’s highly respected works can together be viewed as jumpstarting the literature on the dismal living conditions in North Korea, Kang’s is focused on exposing the existence of forced-labor camps inside North Korea – modern day concentration camps.
The Perils of Being “Remarkable” | Journalist Blaine Harden picks up where Kang left off. In an effort to focus more attention on the existence of the forced-labor camps, Harden tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean defector born into a forced-labor camp, who, because of the “sins” of his parents, became a prisoner at birth. In the book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, Harden (2012) expands upon his original story written for the Washington Post (2008) to tell a fuller, more complete story. Based on multiple interviews with Shin, and Shin’s own written account, Harden reconstructs Shin’s life and his escape from a North Korean forced-labor camp.
Though Shin’s life certainly is “remarkable ” and worthy of being told to anyone willing to hear it – and even those unwilling — the title of Harden’s book has the effect of mystifying Shin’s experiences and betrays an affinity for Homer references by whatever publicist took it up. Marketing overreach notwithstanding, the content is worth the couple of evenings it requires to read it cover-to-cover. Shin’s story — told in often graphic language — details life as a prisoner by birthright: his constant struggle to find food, the near absence of emotion (love and trust were unknown concepts to Shin), the experience of being tortured for months, witnessing the execution of his mother and brother, and the remarkable escape from a place designed to literally work him to death.
The story was first told by Shin alone — in Korean — but received little attention. Shin’s original memoirs about his life in Camp 14 sold only 500 copies of the 3,000 published. As noted by Harden, Demick, and others, South Korean society largely ignores the appalling human rights abuses taking place north of the 38th parallel. In South Korea, the pursuit of luxuries in combination with a punishing work schedule and cutthroat academics has made North Korea more or less an afterthought in the cultural discourse. However, in English, Shin’s story has a significantly larger audience and thus more potential to raise awareness of the brutal tactics used by a highly oppressive totalitarian state to keep its population under control. If the book’s popularity is any measure of success, Harden’s book is accomplishing its intended goal. This phenomenon also points to a vital question for concerned readers to consider: why is it that memoirs, in this case Shin’s, have to appear in English before they make an impact in South Korea?
Most in the English-speaking world are familiar with the deeply disturbing but poignant book Night, by Elie Wiesel, a barely 100-page part memoir, part literary exposé on life in a Nazi concentration camp. So that the world may never forget, books like Night are read, re-read and discussed. In fact, Wiesel’s work and other related writings are required reading for many American high school students. Thus, when people hear “concentration camp,” they are likely to think some combination of the following: “genocide,” “crimes against humanity,” “dehumanization,” and “never again.” Yet, what the world fails to recognize is that “never again” has been the past fifty-plus years — the length of time that forced-labor camps in North Korea have existed. There are, according to South Korean intelligence and human rights groups, six camps that are home to somewhere between 150,000 – 200,000 detainees, depending on the source. Though internationally denounced, “The prisons have barely pricked the world’s collective conscious,” says Harden (2012, p. 17).
Mission Inform | In an interview on NPR, Harden makes clear the ultimate goal behind the book: “Shin’s and my hope is that his story will be the trick that will make people understand what has been going on for half a century and what continues to go on” (NPR, 2012). The broader message that Shin’s story conveys is that while the Nazi concentration camps may have been liberated, their perpetrators brought to justice, and the stories of camp survivors told to a broad, receptive audience, on the other side of the world, the same sort of camps exist.
Harden (2012, p. 112) likens the camps to a “Skinner box,” an isolation chamber developed by the American psychologist B.F. Skinner to condition behavior using food and water. The analogy is used as a way to illustrate that the occupants of North Korea’s labor camps are treated as subjects of control and not human beings. This “treatment” of prisoners is best illustrated by their highly conditioned behavior: in addition to the beatings, malnourishment and back-breaking hard labor, prisoners are strongly encouraged to snitch on their fellow prisoners, which if done sufficiently, is duly rewarded with “better treatment.” SS guards in Nazi concentration camps used similar tactics.
Most disturbingly, the chief characteristic that sets a Nazi Skinner box apart from a North Korean one is length of existence. As Harden (2012, p. 112) states: “Like Nazi concentration camps, labour camps in North Korea use confinement, hunger and fear to … assert absolute control over prisoners. Yet while Auschwitz existed for only three years, Camp 14 is a fifty-year-old Skinner box,an ongoing longitudinal experiment in repression and mind control in which guards breed prisoners whom they control, isolate, and pit against each other from birth” [emphasis added]. What happened for a few years in Nazi Germany and the occupied territories has been happening for half-a-century in North Korea.
First Know, Then “Remember” | Harden’s pen coupled with Shin’s memories and his determination that “the world understand what North Korea has tried so diligently to hide” (Harden, 2012, p. 18) has produced a book as important and hopefully a story as pivotal as the one told by Wiesel. Although the world may not have forgotten, it does not know: enter Shin’s story and the reach of the English language. In order to poke a hole in the world’s bubble of ignorance, Harden and Shin have produced a highly powerful and extraordinarily distressing story that adds to the limited but developing body of literature on life for the people of North Korea.
The world may never forget the Holocaust, but they must first know about Camp 14.
Chol-hwan, Kang and Pierre Rigoulot (2001). The Aquariums of Pyongyang. New York: Basic Books.
Demick, B. (2010). Nothing to Envy, Ordinary Lives in North Korea. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
Harden, Blaine (2008, December 11). North Korean Prison Camp Escapee Tells of Horrors, Worries About Those Left Behind. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/10/AR2008121003855.html.
Harden, B. (2012). Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. New York: Penguin Group.
NPR Staff (2012, March 29). ’Escape from Camp 14’: Inside North Korea’s Gulag. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/03/29/149061951/escape-from-camp-14-inside-north-koreas-gulag.
 A version of this book review will be published in Vol. II, No. 2 of the Korea Review.
Categories: SinoNK Material