In contemporary times, North Korea is certainly an inscrutable country. In addition to being one of the poorest nations in the world, North Korea is also a police state, the personal fiefdom of the infamous Kim dynasty, and a place that tortures and kills its own people with impunity. Although categorically denied by North Korean officialdom, it is now well know that North Korea has plenty of “gulags” or political prison camps inside it. The gulag of all gulags appears to be the rather unimaginatively named Camp 14. What is life in Camp 14 like? The twin objectives of this absorbing book are to answer this question and to shed light on the life of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have escaped from it.
The author begins the proceedings by describing Shin's early life in Camp 14. He lived with his mother in one of the best prisoner quarters that Camp 14 had to offer. Shin and his mother had their own room, but there were no beds, chairs, tables, running water, bath or shower. Life was bleak, and hunger was Shin's constant companion. He worried endlessly about how he would obtain enough food to eat. In this saturnine environment, Shin and his boyhood “friends” attempted various strategies to deal with their chronic state of hunger. One such strategy involved eating rats. We learn that eating “rats not only filled empty stomachs, it was essential to survival” (p. 20). School was a miserable experience in which the students learned very little. Even so, these students did spend a considerable amount of time “finding fault with themselves and one another” (p. 31).
A turning point in Shin’s life came when his mother tried to escape along with his brother. Shin discovered their plan, and being a good snitch, he promptly reported his discovery to the night guard in his school. This dutiful reporting resulted in two momentous events. First, Shin ended up viewing the executions of his own mother and brother. Second, he was incarcerated and tortured in an underground prison because unbeknownst to him, the night guard took the credit for Shin’s snitching. The only positive aspect of Shin’s nightmarish experience in the underground prison was his association with an older prisoner whose medical skills and caring words kept Shin alive. The author does a good job here of highlighting the impact that “Shin’s first exposure to sustained kindness...”(p. 61) had on him.
Upon completion of school and a series of menial jobs, Shin was suddenly transferred to Camp 14's garment factory. Here he met Park Yong Chul who, unlike Shin, was not a prisoner in the camp from birth. In fact, Park had lived a somewhat storied life in Pyongyang and abroad and hence he was able to tell Shin about the many pleasures of life outside Camp 14. Hearing these stories, “Shin decided he had had enough. He began thinking about escape” (p. 104).
The rudimentary escape plan of Shin and Park almost got nowhere. Park died while attempting to get over Camp 14's electrified fence, but providentially, Shin was able to make it. The author does a good job of pointing out how unprepared Shin was for life outside Camp 14, and he repeatedly stresses the salience of luck in enabling Shin to escape not only Camp 14 but eventually North Korea. As the author rightly puts it, “Shin could not have escaped North Korea without an abundance of luck, especially at the border” (p. 140).
In sum, this book possesses neither a table of contents nor an index at the end, and it lacks a sufficiently nuanced discussion of the impact that life in a no-exit gulag like Camp 14 has on the mental ontogenesis of its residents. The author sometimes provides too few details about a particular matter and at other times goes off on discussions that are tangential to the immediate issue at hand. These jeremiads notwithstanding, this is a fine tome that provides a thought-provoking account of courage and endurance and how these twin traits enabled one man to escape from one of the most wretched parts of North Korea.