Monday, May 28, 2012

Escape From Camp 14

Shin Dong-hyuk is the only person ever born inside North Korea's prison camps who is known to have escaped to the outside world and freedom. His incredible life story, in all of its hope and horror, is documented by journalist Blaine Harden in Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.

In reading Escape from Camp 14, I have completed a personal trilogy of sorts, having previously read Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy and Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son. From journalism to historical fiction, what I have read is shocking, if only because of the collective inattention we in the United States have paid to the starvation and concentration camps that have taken the lives of millions of North Koreans. The North Korean gulags have now been open for brutal business for decades, yet many of us ordinary Americans know little, if anything, about their existence and operation.

What makes Shin Dong-hyuk's account so distinctive in closing our awareness gap is the fact that he was born and raised inside the electrified fences of Camp 14 itself. In other words, rather than ending up in the camp after a life as a regular North Korean who somehow ended up offending the state, Shin's parents were prisoners who were allowed to breed, to produce an offspring who's life would be dedicated to the performance of slave labor. Shin was not aware of, and cared next to nothing about, life on the other side of the fence, preferring instead to spend his days and nights trying to stay alive in the face of persistent starvation and physical beatings. The guards in the camp never even bothered to indoctrinate prisoners about Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, thereby distinguishing their inmates from the rest of the patriotic North Korean population.

All Shin was told was that he ought to snitch on anyone who violated Camp 14's ten rules, even infractions as small as eating an undigested kernel of corn found in a piece of cow dung.

And so it was natural for Song to turn in his own mother and brother when he overheard them making plans to escape from the camp. That act of snitching earned him time in a secret prison located underneath Camp 14. During that time, he was suspended over a hot fire, until his flesh burned and he nearly died. Eight months later, emerging back above ground for the first time, he was given a seat of honor at the duel execution of his mother (by hanging) and his brother (by firing squad). At the time, he felt nothing but anger toward them, blaming them for his torture underground, and truly believing, as a loyal snitch, that they were getting what they deserved.

Somehow surviving, against the odds, into adulthood, Shin caught his life-changing break when he was assigned to work along side a fellow prisoner who was not a native of Camp 14, but had been sent there after illegally crossing the border into China. From this man, Shin heard stories, for the first time in his life, about Pyongyang, the not-so-far-away capital of North Korea, about the existence of South Korea and the United States, about the ready availability of grilled meats in the outside world.

It was this last piece of new knowledge, not politics or ideology, that drove Shin to hatch an escape plan of his own. All Shin wanted to do was, for the first time in his life, not feel the constant, throbbing pain of hunger.

One day, while working near Camp 14's fence felling trees for firewood, Shin and his informant made a mad dash. It was winter, and Shin, who was supposed to get to the fence first, slipped and fell on the icy snow. Arriving at the fence first, his partner was immediately electrocuted upon contact, his dead body draped across the lowest of the wires. Shin took quick advantage of the resulting gap in the fence that had been inadvertently created, crawling over the burning flesh, which provided a measure of protection against the deadly electrical current.

Shin had made it to the outside.

But, of course, Shin was still in North Korea, not really a free man, not really free from the clear and present danger of starvation. Even a month later, when he managed to make it across the Tumen River into China, he was not totally free and out of the reach of the North Korean government. He ended up spending over a year in China, drifting across far flung locations such as Beijing, Chengdu, and Shanghai. It was in that last location where he fortuitously bumped into a sympathetic journalist who escorted him into the South Korean consulate, finally beyond the grasp of the concentration camps that he had called home for more than twenty years from birth. Once again, more than the global affairs he was now caught up in, it was the daily showers for the first time in his life that really stood out in his mind.

It was another six months before Shin was able to leave the consulate and get on a plane bound for Seoul.

And so he lived happily ever after, breathing the free air for the rest of his days.

Well, that would be a nice way to wrap things up, only that such a radical transformation just isn't humanly possible in the real world. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Shin has had a hard time, to say the least, adjusting to life as a free man. How does a kid bred to be an inveterate snitch, who even sent his own mother and brother to their death without so much as a guilty thought, learn to live in our modern world, where we must trust one another, at home, at work, in the grocery store, pretty much everywhere we do business or have fun?

And let alone trust...What about love? As Shin himself puts it...

I am evolving from being an animal. But it is going very, very slowly. Sometimes I try to cry and laugh like other people, just to see if it feels like anything.