The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

WoWasis book review: ‘Escape from Camp 14’ a North Korean prison odyssey

Written By: herbrunbridge - Apr• 26•15

Camp14In some corners of the world, it’s possible to be born in prison, live and work in prison, and die in prison. One’s entire existence is lived within those fences. And Shin In Geun was slated to be one of those, in North Korea. Against tremendous odds, he escaped his North Korean prison while in his twenties. It’s told in author Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West (2012, ISBN 978-0-670-02332-5). But as we see from the book, “freedom” is a relative term, and Shin, by the end of the story, still carries ghosts. Lots of them.

Shin parents were both prisoners. His parents were paired by prison authorities, allowed a brief time to procreate, then returned to their work groups, living separately. Love was never part of the equation. The boy grew up with camp rules, which encouraged snitching. Death sentences were instantly imposed on those who attempted to escape, and Shin ratted out his mother and older brother, who were executed before his eyes.

Along with another prisoner, Shin later escaped himself through an electric fence, climbing over the electrocuted dead body of his comrade. He then proceeded on a perilous journey, several hundred miles to the Chinese border. From China, he made his way to South Korea and then to the United States.

The tale is endlessly fascinating, from the minutiae of the prison camp to the struggles of somehow getting to China. Harden carries us through the intricacies of getting past the Chinese authorities to the South Korean consulate. He relates the adjustment issues of North Korean defectors in South Korea, everything from clothing to language to finding and succeeding in interpersonal relationships. There’s also a lot to learn about South Korea, for newly-arrived immigrants from the North. History, culture, and relative wealth are new concepts.

And in the U.S., where Shin lived as this book was written, his adjustment was ongoing.

The book is more than a tale of escape. It deals in clashing cultures, slave labor, and political truth sets. In terms of the escape, the several maps are helpful and necessary to understand the camp layout as well as the trek through North Korea. In terms of human emotions, though, it’s trickier. Shin remains wrestling with the concepts of love and understandably, relationships between parents and children. He’s left with contrasting feelings of guilt for contributing to the death of his mother and relief at his own survival. Since escapees’ families are routinely executed, Shin carries his father’s fate on his shoulders, too.

The book is at once compelling and challenging. It’s a roller-coaster of thought and emotion, leaving the reader somewhat satisfied with the fate of Shin, but thinking all along of the others who will never escape. Some do. Harden relates the story of former U.S. GI Charles Robert Jenkins, who crossed the border into North Korea, participated in propaganda programs, and married a Japanese woman who had been kidnapped from a Japanese beach. Through the efforts of Japanese diplomats, they were eventually taken to Japan.

This book is a thriller all the way through and a staple for every reader interested in what goes on beyond the scenes and under the spy satellites in the nation of North Korea. Buy this book now at the WoWasis eStore.

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