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Today’s Gulags

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Posted on May 2, 2012
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Shin Dong-hyuk.

By Andrew Salmon

“Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West”
A book by Blaine Harden

In 2007, at the conclusion of a press conference at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a young man received an unusual request: He was asked to remove his trousers. A reporter had found the story he had just told so astonishing that she demanded physical evidence of its veracity.

Trembling, the man did so. A horrified gasp went around the room: His lower body was a lacework of scars.

His name was Shin Dong-hyuk, and his legs had been mutilated by electrified barbed wire as he crawled over the smoking corpse of a fellow prisoner to escape North Korea’s most notorious—and previously inescapable—political prison camp.

Shin’s existence in the camp and his escape to the unknown world beyond its fences is the remarkable and harrowing tale that former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden recounts in spare, unadorned prose in “Escape From Camp 14.”

North Korea is arguably the most insulated, most repressive nation on earth, a dystopia with a vast gulag imprisoning 200,000 people, according to Amnesty International. The gulag’s most feared prison is “Total Control Camp 14,” where Shin was born, narrowly survived and from which he eventually fled. He is believed to be the only person ever to escape. North Korean defectors in Seoul were agog when they learned of his feat.

In Camp 14, children are punished for the political sins of their fathers. Hunger is so omnipotent that every prisoner behaves like “a panicked animal” at mealtimes. Teachers at the camp school beat students to death for minor infractions. Medieval torture devices are employed in dungeon-like underground cells. And human relationships are so degraded that prisoners inform on family members.

To see long excerpts from “Escape From Camp 14” at Google Books, click here.

While Shin’s story has been told before, Harden tells it well. He also corrects errors in earlier accounts, revealing that it was Shin himself who informed camp authorities of a planned escape by his mother and brother—information that led to their execution. That Shin would snitch on his own family underscores how the camp corrupts values. It also highlights the troubling fact that those with the grit and determination to survive dire circumstances can sometimes make for poor humans. But here is where Harden’s account excels: He neither paints Shin as a hero, nor depicts his survival as a triumph of the spirit. Shin suffers brutalities and is himself brutalized in the process.

After his escape, Shin encountered itinerant gangs scrabbling to survive in North Korea’s starving hinterland, corrupt border guards, Chinese farmers who exploit the labor of desperate refugees, and “brokers” who smuggle people out of North Korea for profit. One of the few sympathetic figures in the book is “Uncle,” a mysteriously respected senior prisoner who nursed Shin back to health after his hideous torture—at age 13—in an underground cell. Shin does not know, nor does Harden speculate upon, Uncle’s identity.

book cover

 

Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West

 

By Blaine Harden

 

Viking Adult, 224 pages

 

Buy the book

By the book’s close, it is depressingly unclear whether Shin has been able to nourish his stunted soul while dividing his time between the United States and South Korea. Suffering post-traumatic stress, he drifts through life, often telling lies, doesn’t communicate well and cannot maintain a relationship.

The book is also a useful primer on recent developments in the Hermit Kingdom. Harden explains how primitive capitalism has spread nationwide as Pyongyang’s elite has lost its iron-fisted control of the economy. He also documents the porousness of the China-Korea border. What he does not explain—and what remains a mystery to many North Korea watchers—is why only 21,000 defectors have come south in the last six decades.

A few recent books have cast light on North Korea. Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” proved that there are “normal” people in the country. B.R. Myers’ “The Cleanest Race” revealed that a racist, ultranationalist ideology underpins what is misleadingly labeled a communist regime. But almost no books by North Koreans have emerged, with the exception of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” by Kang Chol Hwan. President George W. Bush was so moved by this defector’s tale of life in the state labor camps that he invited Kang to the White House. While the horrors of the Russian gulag, Nazi genocide and Cambodian mass murders have been amply documented, North Korea’s grisly conditions remain shadowy and under-publicized. In depicting the depravity of North Korean prison life, Harden’s book is an important portrait of man’s inhumanity to man.

Andrew Salmon, a Seoul-based reporter, is the author of “To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea 1951” and “Scorched Earth, Black Snow: Britain and Australia in the Korean War, 1950.”

© 2012, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group


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By heterochromatic, May 8, 2012 at 1:27 pm Link to this comment

Henri—- as soon as you finish explaining why Korea should feel it self under
threat of imminent attack form the US, I’ll be glad to depart laden with such
prize.

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M Henri Day's avatar

By M Henri Day, May 8, 2012 at 1:07 pm Link to this comment

«The traditional enemies of the Koreans are Japan and China ... »Many thanks, dear «heterochromatic» for vouchsafing me the benefits of your amazing erudition ! And, indeed, you are quite right ; if we speak of «tradition», it was hardly the United States that lay behind the Mongol Yuan dynasty’s subjugation of the Koryo dynasty in the 14th century, nor was it responsible for Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea some two hundred year’s later. (It might be noted, however, that then-US president Theodore Roosevelt - who, interestingly enough, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 - supported Japan in the latter’s war on Russia in North China and Korea, which resulted in Japan’s incorporation of that country in 1910.) Those of us, however, who were around on 25 June 1950 and have not yet entirely succumbed to the onslaughts of senility, might, perhaps, be forgiven for viewing the situation obtaining on the Korean peninusula and its immediate surroundings somewhat differently than you seem to do. In any event, I do look forword to seeing another of your inimitable postings - e g, one which seeks to dismiss the US war on Vietnam (and the other Indochinese countries) by indicating that historically, the Vietnamese state’s «traditional» enemies have been China and Cambodia….

Please do continue to post with regard to matters on which your astonishing scholarship shines with so clear and steady a light !...

Henri

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By heterochromatic, May 8, 2012 at 12:22 pm Link to this comment

Henri—- despite talk of blandishments, the US has never been inclined to attack
North Korea any more than North Korea is inclined to attack Nebraska.

Our war with them was nothing that we chose nor expected nor instigated…...


Perhaps you could tell us of your idea about just who is lining up to attack North
Korea? 

The traditional enemies of the Koreans are Japan and China…...and Japan doesn’t
seem poised for another go-round.

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M Henri Day's avatar

By M Henri Day, May 8, 2012 at 11:56 am Link to this comment

I appreciate your sense of humour, dear «heterochromatic», as do, no doubt, the residents of all those countries that have been unwise enough to disarm in response to blandishments to the effect that by so doing, they would be allowed to join the so-called «international community» (read : the US and its vassals) and then, when defenceless, been attacked by this latter. Alas, the North Koreans - may I here suggest that North Korea, like China, is yet another one of those countries which you have never visited and thus know much more about than the rest of us combined ? - are not predisposed to join in the laughter….

Henri

Henri

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By heterochromatic, May 7, 2012 at 3:34 pm Link to this comment

Henri—- are you REALLY suggesting that the NorKs are “threatened by the
prospect of an imminent attack by the US” 

hilariously nuts, Henri.

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americanme's avatar

By americanme, May 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm Link to this comment

Ozark:

1.  How do you know that some extreme leftists (of which there are precisely zero in the US) have not spent time in North Korea?  I know quite a few here in latin America who have spent time there. 

2.  And since YOU have never spent any time there, given your own screwball logic (sic) you are not qualified to opine.

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OzarkMichael's avatar

By OzarkMichael, May 3, 2012 at 3:07 pm Link to this comment

The extreme Leftists who equate the morality of the our system of government(US) with North Korea ought to go to North Korea to experience the Communist system first hand.  Like spoiled children, they sorely need an education about real life.

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M Henri Day's avatar

By M Henri Day, May 3, 2012 at 7:55 am Link to this comment

It is not only concern for the Chinese masses which can be faked, but concern for their Korean counterparts as well. That being said, there seems to be no reason to doubt the suffering reported by Shin Dong-hyuk and others, but to portray the so-called «West» - definition, please ! - as freedom’s promised land is a bit rich. Were, for example, the US government genuinely concerned for the fate of the North Korean people, it would consider entering into negotiations with its North Korean counterpart to replace the Armistice Agreement of 27 July 1953 with a peace treaty, something it has adamantly refused to do for the last nearly six decades. Then, perhaps, the North Korean regime would find itself less threatened by the prospect of an imminent attack by the US and less compelled to maintain its present policy of songun and able instead to devote a greater part of the country’s scarce resources to improving the livelihood of the people….

Henri

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By gritona, May 2, 2012 at 7:21 pm Link to this comment

And the U.S. Gulag has how many?
I can count about 30,000+ in gitmo, Cropper, Bucca and Bagram
then the cia black sites, and the prison ships and still others never mentioned anywhere.
North Korea is pitiful- NOBODY gets out of our gulag!

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americanme's avatar

By americanme, May 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm Link to this comment

Send me a message when somebody escapes from Guantanamo to freedom iin Cuba.

Truthdig is shilling for patriotism yet again!

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By diamond, May 2, 2012 at 2:29 pm Link to this comment

It’s true that North Korea has 200,000 people in gulags but China has 10,000,000 people imprisoned in gulags. One of the Chinese camps is 20 kilometers wide. All those who believe capitalism and free market economics always or ever equals democracy, take note.

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