In Need of an Icon: Interview with Blaine Harden

By | May 15, 2013 | No Comments

Shin Dong-hyuk, whose life story is told by Blaine Harden, protests the repatriation of North Korean defectors living in China | Image Courtesy: Dan Bielefeld

Shin Dong-hyuk, whose life story is told by Blaine Harden, protests the repatriation of North Korean defectors living in China | Image Courtesy: Dan Bielefeld

For an issue like “North Korean human rights” to enter the mainstream, it needs a genre, an icon, and an audience. In her essay, “The Story of ‘Night’,” journalist Rachel Donadio frames Elie Wiesel’s rise to fame as “a case study in how a book helped created a genre, how a writer became an icon and how the Holocaust was absorbed into the American experience.” Getting on the New York Times best-seller list and onto the curricula of high school and college classes takes more than a harrowing story, it takes a society-wide shift in how the the topic is understood, discussed, and taught. 

Similar phenomena seem to be unfolding for Blaine Harden’s re-telling of Shin Dong-hyuk’s escape from a political prison camp. For six weeks now, Escape form Camp 14 has been on the NYT’s best-seller list and is being slated for inclusion in some high school college curricula. Though it has a long way to reach Night-level status, it is safe to say that Camp 14 is increasingly being grouped into the canon of the concentration camp/Holocaust genre, that Harden and Shin are becoming icons of sorts, and that Shin’s story is being absorbed into the American experience.

But what about China, the country where so many North Korean refugee narratives continue to play out?  For a country that plays such a pivotal role for defectors, the Chinese-language translation of Camp 14 may lend momentum toward a Chinese consciousness of human rights abuses in the DPRK, and of the struggle of North Korean defectors more generally. 

In the third and final part of Sino-NK’s  interview with Blaine Harden (see parts one here and part two here), the author addresses China’s role in the publication circuit and in Shin’s remarkable story. – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

In Need of an Icon: Interview with Blaine Harden

by Adam Cathcart

Adam Cathcart [AC]: In China domestically, we’ve seen a limited opening up of the spigots on the discussion of North Korean defectors, particularly in early 2012. How you think the appearance of your book might change Chinese views of North Korea? Is it possible for Chinese public opinion or the Chinese Communist Party to apply some pressure on North Korea about this issue?

Blaine Harden [BH]: I think it goes back to the power of Shin’s story. He was bred by guards to be worked to death. His mind and values were molded by the guards who ordered his parents to have sex. He was part of a state-created system that bred children to be slaves. And Shin was raised to believe in a set of rules that encouraged him to betray his own mother—and cause her death. Then he managed to meet somebody who told him about the outside world, and he had the courage to risk his life by wiggling through a high-voltage fence and run for freedom. This is a sensationally interesting human story. I hope that in China readers will be captivated by it and learn about the North Korean government’s cruelty to its own people. If they know Shin’s story, perhaps they will demand that their governments stop supporting the Kim family. In any case, that’s my hope.

AC: What about the Chinese treatment of Shin when he crosses the water, and meets a wise old man…

BH: Shin’s crossing of the border into China was an anti-climax. By the time he made that crossing, it was a workaday behavior for tens of thousands of North Koreans. The guard asked him, “When you come back, will you bring me something to eat?” Shin was smart enough to realize that the crossing had become a routine transaction. He also had been informed that when you go across the border, it’s not that foreign. At least not initially. On the Chinese side of the border, people speak Korean. They are familiar with the defectors and they often give them employment, if it serves their financial interests. They’re useful. Tens of thousands of North Koreans have gone into the ethnic Korean part of China and found a life, as the spouse of a farmer or as a worker. For many of them, it’s a better life than they had back home. They can eat and they can find medical care and they can get paid hard currency for hard work.

AC: At one point, Shin is getting paid five yuan a day to work. He gets a couple of handouts here and there, but it’s really his first job, isn’t it?

BH: A Chinese pig farmer gave Shin his first job. It was the first time he wasn’t a slave. And it happened so fast. After crossing the border, he had one of the best days of his life. He had a proper meal with rice and meat. He had a job and a warm place to sleep. He could sleep eight hours without being disturbed. The pig farmer even went to a store and bought Shin some medicine to get the lice off his body.

AC: AC: He’s also taking showers every day, which had never happened before. This brings to mind that China has talked recently about bringing in more North Korean workers, more systematically.  If the North Koreans are coming across the Chinese border legally to work—maybe 20,000 at a time —what’s wrong with that?

BH: There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a better life for them, except when they are victims of sex-trafficking or physical abuse or indentured servitude. In China, they often have no legal rights.

AC: So it would be possible to say “this is a repugnant regime in North Korea,” but steps that would result in more food, or information, coming in to North Korea from the outside.

BH: To repeat myself, the biggest human rights problem in North Korea is hunger, and severe malnutrition for pregnant women and newborns.  There is widespread cognitive impairment caused by malnutrition. If people can cross the border and find food and bring back food, which they are doing, that decreases the chances of famine and severe hunger.

AC: The activist Robert Park has asserted that North Korea is engaging in genocide against its own people, and this is a crime against humanity. In Syria, we’ve seen the government systematically denying food to its domestic opponents – in other words, we are not just talking about weapons or repression. Do you believe that the North Korean government is in fact engaged in a slow-scale warfare against people outside of Pyongyang that would keep them hungry and unable to think about anything besides eating? When people talk about genocide, is there anything to these accusations?

BH: I think genocide is a pretty loaded word. There is no need to exaggerate the scope of the human rights tragedy. There is data showing that the farther you live from Pyongyang, the less you eat, the more likely you are to stunted and cognitively impaired. That’s based on food and nutrition surveys done by the UN World Food Program and UNICEF. The government maintains an apartheid policy of moving people away from the capital if they are not considered to be loyal or trustworthy. Those people moved to the periphery do not eat much. Pregnant women have serious problems of malnutrition and their kids have chronic to severe—and sometimes lethal levels—of malnutrition. And that’s the policy of the government. That’s a very bad system and may be unique on the planet. The political labor camps are also a part of the state. They perform a very useful service for the regime. The camps isolate and eliminate those who have the courage to speak out (and those unlucky enough to be snitched upon by informers). And they scare the hell out of everybody else and keep people quiet. To that nasty end, the camps work. That’s why they’ve been there for more than half a century. Does it add up to genocide? I don’t know, but it is clearly reprehensible and criminal.

AC: The Kim Jong-un regime has spent a lot of money in Pyongyang – and the city now has electricity 24 hours a day and is posed, as ever, as a real party for kids. We in the West have mocked a lot of these parks and playgrounds that he’s built, but the funding speaks for itself, and life seems to be improving for residents in Pyongyang. Is that enough to sustain the regime? Are people in Pyongyang living in fear? Something like 2 million people or 10% of the country is there. Is their living in comfort fully counterbalanced by the atrocities occurring the camps beyond the capital? Or is the fundamental part of the regime so rotten that it doesn’t matter how much comfort people have in Pyongyang?

BH: To live in Pyongyang you have to be a trusted person. You have to come from a trusted family or have proven yourself to be trustworthy. So by improving the life of the people in Pyongyang, the regime has been tending to its own survival. To cater to the needs of the people who matter seems like a shrewd tactic for self-preservation. You now have AP in Pyongyang, so it also makes sense to dress up the capital to manufacture images showing that life is better.

AC: My last question is just about process. One of the things we do at Sino-NK is mentor younger writers and work to bring new voices in. So we have writing groups, and we talk a lot about process and publication. Your book has been hugely successful but obviously it wasn’t written in a day.  Could you talk a bit about your process, not necessarily doing the research, but just sitting down and knocking this out? How did you approach a big project like this?

 BH: It goes back to the story of Shin’s life. This is a story that has a wonderful arc to it. So it was easy to write. It has a clear beginning: a little boy goes with his mom to watch a public execution. It has the awful scene when Shin at age 13 betrays his mother and brother. There’s his magical encounter with Park, who teaches him about the outside world, and then there’s the amazing escape, with Shin crawling over Park’s electrocuted body. I tried to take maximum advantage of these scenes to make the story irresistible to the readers. Then I tried to fold in reportage about North Korea, but without drowning the story in context. It was relatively easy to organize and write. Reporters don’t come across stories like this very often. If you are a reporter and if you do stumble across a powerful human story, my advice is to drop everything and pursue it. Go as deep into it as you can. Shin presented lots of problems for me as a reporter. He is a really smart person with a phenomenal memory. But he was also very traumatized when I met him Some of the most interesting and important parts of his story caused him pain to talk about. So what I did was slowly nibble at the details he was willing to offer, going back again and again  to make the narrative as rich as possible. I probably should have waited longer and got more detail. But I tried my best. What makes for a readable book about a remote country is a character-driven adventure story, one that makes a reader’s heart beat quickly and painlessly increases understanding. Shin’s story does that.

The entire interview will be published in the forthcoming issue of the Yonsei Journal of International Studies, a graduate-run journal at Yonsei University. Following publication, a link to the full interview will be posted at Sino-NK.

Additional Readings:

Rachel Donaldio, “The Story of ‘Night,’New York Times, January 20, 2008.

Sokeel Park, “China’s North Korean Refugee Problem,” Sino-NK, March 29, 2012.

Steven Denney, “To Never Forget, One Must First Know. Book Review: Escape from Camp 14,” Sino-NK, July 28, 2012.

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