I'm embarrassed to admit that until about a month ago, I didn't even know North Korea had concentration camps. Perhaps I had been vaguely aware of them as "work" or "labor" camps, but they hadn't yet registered in my consciousness until a student in my Intercultural Communication class gave a presentation about North Korea. In her presentation, she mentioned the memoir of a man who had recently escaped the most dangerous of North Korea's several concentration camps.
"Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West" tells the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who was born into North Korea's formidable Camp 14. Established in 1959, Camp 14 holds an estimated 15,000 prisoners. It is 30 miles long and 15 miles wide and contains farms, mines, and factories.
Shin's parents were sent to the camp for different reasons, and then assigned to marry one another as a reward for good behavior. They were allowed to "be together" only five nights a year, but still managed to procreate twice. As a child, Shin's family showed one another no affection; they were raised in an environment that punished family loyalty and rewarded snitching. They viewed one another as competitors for perpetually scarce food.
Blaine Harden, the author of the book, is a report for PBS Frontline, contributes to The Economist, and has served as The Washington Post's bureau chief in East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa. He is a thorough and nuanced writer, taking care to be honest and informative.
Shin's story is fascinating and heartbreaking. It was a shock to me, as I'm sure it will be to many others, that such conditions exist relatively unprotested by the rest of the world. Harden briefly explains the North Korean government's cast system and fanatical control over what is presented to the outside world. Still, an empathetic reader can't help but hope this book falls into the hands of people in positions to make a difference.
Something in particular that I appreciated about this book is Harden's honesty in regards to Shin's adjustment to life outside of North Korea. I was somewhat fearful that the book would follow the lines of "Shin escaped from the evil North Koreans and found salvation in America with the good guys". In this case, propaganda isn't helpful or honest. Instead, Harden is open about Shin's difficult emotional adjustment. Over the last couple years I have done research about the impact of trauma on early development and the ability to form stable attachments. Basically, early trauma changes the brain on a fundamental level. Sometimes it's not possible for people's brains to be "rewired" to function as someone who was not exposed to trauma. When it is possible, it occurs only after an intense recovery process with access to a lot of medical and psychological resources. Also, the people with whom we interact when we are young serve as templates for our understanding of all subsequent human interactions. Since Shin's exposure to humans excluded warmth and rewarded disloyalty, it will be extremely difficult for him to ever learn to trust or feel empathy.
However, Shin has already proven to be extraordinary by virtue of the internal fortitude required of him to face what seemed to be certain death in order to leave the only place he had ever known. I would not be entirely surprised if, after a few more years of adjustment, he showed an emotional resiliency that has seldom been documented.
Overall, this is a quick read and I strongly recommend it.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Books read in 2012: 45