73 pages 2 hours read

Blaine Harden

Escape from Camp 14

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2012

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Summary and Study Guide


Escape from Camp 14 is the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who is the only known person to have been born in and escape from a North Korean labor camp. The book’s author, Blaine Harden, interviewed Shin many times and has also spoken with former camp guards and North Korean traders. His book details Shin’s life both inside and outside the camp, as well as the political landscape in North Korea.

As Shin was born in the labor camp, he grew up knowing nothing of the outside world and accepted the camp’s regime of brutality and deceit unquestioningly. It should be noted that prisoners did not have commit a crime to find themselves in the camp, as individuals could be imprisoned as a result of guilt by association. Shin’s father, for instance, was arrested because of his brother’s actions. Neither he nor Shin had done anything to warrant being in the camp, yet, in North Korea, the concept of bloodline is paramount.

Harden elaborates that Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s then-leader, instigated a caste system in 1957 which divided North Korea’s populace into three social strata: the “core” class lived in the capital city of Pyongyang and often served in government and military positions, the wavering or neutral class worked as teachers or technicians, and the lowest class was made up of people suspected of opposing the government, as well as their relatives. Such individuals were only allowed to work in factories and mines.

However, the author points out that even the core class lived a relatively modest lifestyle that pales in comparison to a South Korean city such as Seoul. The only people living in luxury in North Korea are members of the Kim dynasty who reside in country manors complete with shooting ranges, basketball courts, and movie theatres. Inequality is acute, and the majority of the population lives in poverty.

This situation has not been helped by famine that occurred in the 1990s. This was initially so severe that the country was forced to rely on foreign aid, though much of this aid did not reach its intended recipients. Interviewees attest to the corruption in North Korea and one trader reveals that he took part in a state-run global insurance scam, extracting money for supposed natural disasters and industrial accidents. Reinsurance companies came to realize that they were being duped, but, for a time, this scheme proved lucrative for the government.

The existence of the labor camps in North Korea is a critical topic in that, despite clear satellite evidence, these camps have attracted little international attention. They are vast in size, house a large number of prisoners, and have been around for far longer than Nazi concentration camps, yet the world has turned a blind eye to what is going on. South Korea, for instance, is an affluent country, the inhabitants of which are ambitious and competitive. They are thus concerned with their own success—not the poverty and inequity that is rife north of the border.

Raising awareness is therefore one of the author’s motivations in writing this book, and it is also one of the reasons Shin has been willing to detail his story.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to Shin’s distant, antagonistic relationship with his family. Shin rarely saw his father and brother, while his interactions with his mother were devoid of affection. At that time, the concept of family was alien to him and, as a result, he had no misgivings when it came to informing the camp’s night guard that his brother and mother were formulating an escape plan. Informing on fellow prisoners was encouraged within the camp and brought with it the prospect of better treatment or rewards. Not only this, the principle of guilt by association meant that family members were punished on one another’s behalf, and Shin knew that his mother and brother were putting him at risk. His consequent fear and anger motivated his betrayal and culminated in a stark scene in which he witnessed his mother and brother being executed.

This scene is memorable in that, despite the horror of the spectacle, Shin felt that his family members deserved to die. Readers may find this scene shocking, and Shin has since been plagued with guilt and regret However, this was the mindset that had been fostered by the camp.

While Shin went many years without questioning his lot, fellow prisoners who had experience of the outside world prompted him to think about—and hanker after—a life beyond the camp’s boundaries. This led to a risky yet successful escape attempt, and the author describes Shin’s experiences as he made the long trek to China. It was while seeking employment in China that Shin had a chance encounter with a journalist who listened to his story and escorted him to the South Korean Consulate. Shin found himself in South Korea six months later and so began a lengthy, ongoing process of adjustment to the outside world.

Having observed the importance and strength of family love, Shin has come to feel guilty about how he acted in the camp. He has found it difficult to reconcile his former and current selves, and the psychological effects of his time in the camp have been substantial. However, Shin has forged a successful career as a public speaker and is currently living in the United States. He does not know what the future holds, but he is spurred on by the aim of raising awareness of North Korea’s labor camps.