A Book Review

of Blaine Harden's

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


By Lance Zedric

Reading Blaine Harden’s, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West (Viking 2012), is like watching a train wreck—the horror is evident and unmistakable; the allure raw and carnal; the experience unforgettable—and the effect necessary. The book is a stark reminder that cruelty and evil exist in our world, and that often it is the innocents who suffer most. But it is also a story of hope amidst hopelessness that reminds us that anything is possible.

Camp 14 is the personal account of Shin Dong-Hyuk and his birth, life, and escape from a brutal North Korean labor camp. Though not on the scope nor scale of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1973 classic, The Gulag Archipelago, that exposed the Soviet labor camp system, or Medal of Honor recipient James Stockdale’s, In Love and War, that recounts the personal torture and resistance that he endured in the infamous Hanoi Hilton POW Camp during the Vietnam War, the book is wonderfully written and is a much-needed revelation into the horrors of the communist North Korean camp system—of which there is a relative and understandable paucity of first-hand accounts.

Born in the camp because of the “sins of the mothers and fathers,” prisoners lived under 10 Camp Rules in which disobedience warranted being “immediately shot.” Shin and other prisoners lived in an environment without love and trust, and where starvation, beatings, and death were a daily occurrence. In one wrenching example, Shin’s six-year-old friend was beaten to death for having five kernels of corn in her pocket, echoing similar treatment experienced by millions at Auschwitz in World War II, in Cambodia during the 1970s, in Rwanda in the 1990s, and in similar camps throughout the world today.

From the first page, the reader struggles to understand how Shin, conceived in the forced mating of two prisoners, could survive a loveless childhood with starvation and brutality as playmates. Or how, as a 13-year-old, he informs on his mother and brother—only to have them executed before his eyes. Unlike most whom experience oppression and have their freedom stripped, Shin never had it. But like all humans, he intrinsically knew that he had to be free, and despite being illiterate, he had acquired enough survival skills to escape, and with a little help, fled to China and to eventual freedom.

As the book progressed, I found myself ambivalent concerning Shin’s fate. It was difficult to reconcile turning in his parents and family—but marginally understandable given his savage upbringing. While it was easy to root for his escape, I sometimes found myself wanting him to be recaptured—feeling that it was deserved—or at least less tragic. For Shin must live with guilt of his actions and integrate into a society that he is ill-prepared for. The author emphasizes that Shin still suffers from paranoia, PTSD and other injuries, physical and otherwise, but notes that he is making progress—albeit under a thin veneer of normalcy.

Surely, Shin’s life in a North Korean camp will haunt him for the rest of his life, and therein lies another tragedy. Where else but in Orwell’s Animal Farm—could there exist a prototypical model depicting how “absolute power corrupts absolutely”—most notably and appropriately evidenced by the world’s first communist monarchy formed by the eternal leader Kim Il Sun, advanced by his half-wit degenerate son Kim Jong Il, and continued by the nascent and newly-crowned Kim Jong Un, that could rob children of their innocence and irreparably injure them for life? Simple. Anyplace where vigilance lags and the seeds of oppression are sown and cultivated. Examples are evident throughout the world from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe with no end in sight. Solzhenitsyn wrote that, “Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence.” Hopefully, Escape from Camp 14, and books like it, can do more to help shine light on the truth wherever it be found.


Copyright© by Lance Zedric, 2014.

George W. Bush with, Shin Dong-Hyuk

–Oct 2013

Shin Dong-Hyuk – aka: Shin In Geun