Escape from Camp 14

I just finished a really horrible book.

Let me be clear – it had nothing to do with the writing. The writing was great. It was horrible because it was true and the truth was horrible. And ongoing.

The book in question is Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.

So you know when you read books about concentration camps you are sad and revolted and then you finish and think to yourself at least that atrocious stuff is over? In this case, the atrocious stuff still happens.

I’m getting ahead of myself. In the book we meet Shin, who as far as we know is one of only three people that have escaped from these camps that they have in North Korea. What makes Shin unique is that he was born and raised in this camp. His parents were married to each other as a reward for hard work and he was the result of that union. He never found out why his mother was in the camp but his father was paying the price for having defector brothers.

Life inside the camp was brutal. Executions were common, starvation was par for the course, and prisoners learned to rat on each other for self-preservation. Shin’s body is covered in the scars from his brutal treatment: he was held over a fire so that his skin started to burn, and part of one of his fingers was cut off.

If he didn’t reach his work quota, he was beaten. He was able to go to school but learned only rudimentary counting and very basic language. He once watched his teacher beat a classmate to death. He was always starving – before he was allowed to go to school he would stay alone in his house all day and eat his lunch and his mother’s lunch. Then she would come home and beat him. His mother and brother were executed in front of him for planning to escape.

He lived this way his whole life until he was assigned to teach a new prisoner how to do his job in the garment factory where he worked. Then he began to hear about this outside world, about all the food that was available to anyone who could buy it. The idea of all this food out there ended up being the reason he planned with this man to escape. Before, he would have told the guards if someone was planning to escape to get extra food or not to get beaten. But now, he wanted to get out.

Despite all the odds, Shin does make it out of the camp. He made it all the way to the West which is how we are able to read his story today. The second half of the book takes you through Shin attempting to adjust to life outside of the camp and for the most part, failing at it. I think we all take for granted the fact that we can relate to other people, that we understand that telling the truth is right, what it means to love another person. Shin didn’t have any of that growing up.

It’s a heartbreaking book, made so much worse by the knowledge that this is still happening. Shin escaped in 2005, the book was published in 2012. It is current and up to date and still happening.

For more information on the horrors in North Korea, click here.


5 thoughts on “Escape from Camp 14

  1. Thanks for this. When I saw the tag North Korea, my stomach turned. I don’t think I will be brave enough to read this, even though it sounds amazing.

    What struck me was how he didn’t hear about the outside world until very late in his life. And thinking about his parents knowing what the world was like but I guess you wouldn’t let your children know the truth, would you, thinking that they would never see it?

    • His relationship with his parents was very messed up. His father seemed to feel really bad that Shin had the misfortune to be his son, to have to pay for the decisions of his family. But his mother, I think, viewed him as competition for food. Shin doesn’t know her story so we don’t either but she just beats the crap out of Shin and yells at him and seems to hate him. But maybe it was easier for her to get through the day if she was angry at everyone, including Shin.

      It’s a crazy read, but an important story.

      • Interesting those two views of his parents. I guess this is what it’s like when you get down to the bare bones of survival, how people behave in extreme situations.

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