Escape from Camp 14 - Mel's Mailbag Meditations
How I found it
I am a voracious reader. My half hour mailman lunch break consists of reading anything I can get my hands on. I can't just "sit there;" I feel jittery and exposed if I don't have written material in front of me in every idle moments. In these situations I lunge for the first book or magazine I can find that seems marginally appealing. If every once in a while I get stuck with Good Housekeeping or Telenovelas I make do. That is why it is interesting to me how after searching so hard for something to read I sometimes stumble upon remarkable books by complete accident.
"Escape from Camp 14," by Blaine Harden, is one of these books. I never heard of it previously, so I never made a point of trying to find it. The book found me, and I am glad it did, because I think it opened my eyes to the degree of evil that still exists in the world. After reading it, I more deeply realize that as a citizen of a "Western" country I live a sheltered life. Yes, I worry about money, like everyone else. As far as my work worries are concerned, I know us letter carriers tend to gripe a lot by nature but I don't think any of us, as far as I know, has ever been roasted over hot coals or had a finger chopped off as punishment for not doing the route in eight hours. Life is relatively easy here in the West, and we need books like Escape from Camp 14 to remind us of that, so we can keep it that way.
I stumbled across this book when I was attending freshman orientation at my son's college. It was tucked inside the "swag bag" they gave him, along with the pens, notebooks, cups, and a dozen other sundry items proudly bearing the University's logo. I immediately snatched it from him when he wasn't looking and began reading it in those dull moments when the speaker on the podium was expounding upon the drier points of the campus bookstore return policy or some other sleep inducing topic. As I plunged into Shin's memoir, I thought about how petty all of these things would seem to someone who was born and raised in a North Korean prison camp, a world in which hunger, physical beatings, and psychological torture were part and parcel of the only life he ever knew.
I am not going to shout out Spoiler Alert! here in advance because I think it is obvious from the title that the book had a happy ending. So here is a brief summation of the story that will hopefully motivate you to read it.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born in Camp 14, a North Korean prison camp that the North Korean government denies the existence of, along with a multitude of other prison camps that hold hundreds of thousands of political prisoners. Because Shin was born in the camp he knew nothing at all about the outside world. The history, the geography and the creature comforts of the planet at large were as unknown to Shin as the far side of the galaxy would be to us. On second thought, the average television viewer probably knows more about the far side of the galaxy than Shin knew about the geography a hundred yards from the camp fence. As such, he had nothing to compare his miserable lot as a prisoner to. He had no frame of reference. He grew up thinking that his was a normal existence, and living in this animal pen he did what was necessary to survive in a world in which prisoners were granted small favors for "snitching" on their friends and family members and where perpetual hunger was the driving force behind ones moral choices.
Growing up in the camp, Shin's earliest memories were of executions. People were murdered arbitrarily at the whim of the camp's guards. For example, a young girl at Shin's "school" was beaten to death with a blackboard pointer when she displeased the teacher, but there were also systematic, staged executions, which usually occurred after a prisoner attempted to escape. The camp's inmates were encouraged to report anyone plotting to break out, and Shin snitched on his own mother and brother when he overheard them talking about escape. He was "rewarded" by being brutally tortured in an underground cell, where he remained for six months and nearly died.
To say that life in the camp was "harsh" would be an understatement. Shin and his fellow inmates were forced to perform impossibly long shifts of hard labor that were fueled by a handful of corn and some cabbage soup. The inmates supplemented their diet by catching rats and even pulling out partially digested kernels of corn from pig feces. Cruelty also walked side by side with hunger in the camp, as exhibited when Shin had part of one of his fingers chopped off as punishment for breaking a sewing machine. Yet Shin endured this life because he was ignorant of what lay in the world beyond the fence, and fear of the severe repercussions for a failed escape might have kept him there forever, if not for the fateful arrival of a new prisoner from the outside world.
This man, whose name was Park Yong Chul, had formerly lived a comfortable life as part of the ruling elite until he ran afoul of a powerful family and was tossed into the labor camp. Park had been educated in the West and was familiar with its political freedom and technological marvels. As a reliable "snitch," Shin was assigned to spy on Park, but wound up befriending him instead. Shin didn't pay much attention to Park's dissertations on freedom and politics. None of these concepts made any sense to him, but he would listen in rapturous awe for hours as Park spoke about food. It was the lure of never-ending food outside the camp that finally made Shin decide to jump the wire and escape Camp 14.
Even though nobody had ever escaped from Camp 14, there was nothing at all elaborate or sophisticated about Shin's plot to escape from it. Shin and Park were assigned to a work detail that took them close to the electrified camp fence, and they made a run for it. Park got to the fence first when Shin stumbled and fell down, and Shin then climbed over Park's electrocuted dead body to get out. He made his way to China, where he worked as a laborer for some time, and eventually was transported to freedom in South Korea. His crossing into China was not particularly harrowing or eventful; he simply bribed the starving border guards with candy and cigarettes.
The lesson I took from Escape from Camp 14 was how completely a totalitarian, police state society destroys human dignity. Prior to reading this I was not uneducated about the human rights abuses of the North Korean government, but Blaine Harden's book painted an even more dreary picture of them. Shin's memoir starkly points out how fear and hunger change people. The morality level of the inmates of Camp 14 had been reduced by constant hunger to that of a pack of wild dogs. Family connections meant nothing, and friendships were only for whatever temporary advantages could be gained by an alliance. I believe that North Korea comes closer to the bleak picture of unending despair painted by Orwell's book 1984 than any country that has ever existed.
Because it seems to be in heavy distribution around college campuses, I am hopeful that this book will open the eyes of young people who take their freedoms for granted and assume that the rest of the world lives as comfortably and as free of fear as we do. The frustrating and discouraging realization that I take with me after reading Shin's odyssey is that I am not sure if North Korea will ever, or can ever change for the better. China would interpret a free and unified Korean peninsula as a loaded gun pointed directly at its temple, with Uncle Sam's finger on the trigger. It was exactly this fear that pulled China into the Korean war; resulting in the stalemate and division that exists to this day. Nobody wants a repeat performance of that conflict. Pressure on North Korea has to be unrelenting but it also has to be peaceful, without a drop of American, Korean, or Chinese blood being spilled.
All the same, I think we have an obligation to continue to cry out for human rights wherever they are being brutally suppressed. I am not under the naive impression that we enjoy complete freedom here in the West, the drones hovering above us and their insidious implications are ever upon my mind, but here I am writing away on Hub Pages and I can still pretty much say what I want to without fearing that the secret police are going to knock down my door and haul me away to the gulag. We need to be cognizant of these freedoms, and we need to fight for them where they are lacking. Reading Escape from Camp 14 is a start. I highly recommend it.