Review of Escape From Camp 14 written by Blaine Harden
Rating **** 1/2
What if you learned that there are prison camps in this world that are not that far removed from the Nazi death camps of WWII? Escape From Camp 14 tells the story of one man’s experiences growing up and eventually escaping one such prison camp in North Korea. Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a labor camp in North Korea. His entire family had been imprisoned due to the actions of an Uncle. The North Korean leaders believe that the only way to rid their society of undesirables is to imprison several generations of one’s family to punish the actions of one. So like a real world Under The Dome, Shin’s universe exists in a prison camp surrounded by electrified fences and armed guards. He knows nothing of the outside world or what lies beyond those fences.
When it comes to imprisoning one’s own populace, the Unites States has little room to criticize other countries. We imprison more people than any other country in the world. Our justice system is a broken, dysfunctional, politicized mess that often imprisons the innocent and releases deadly criminals through plea bargains and shoddy prosecutions. We imprison the poor who can not afford a proper defense and allow white collar criminals and those with resources to buy their way out of prison. Even something as simple as traffic court is set up for bribes in return for lessor offenses. Got a speeding ticket? No problem, give us $250 and we’ll make it a non-moving violation. But no matter how screwed up our system is, it can’t compare to the brutality and inhumane conditions that exists in the labor camps in North Korea.
This book reveals what it is like to grow up in a North Korean prison camp where children are taught from an early age that the only way to survive is to rat out your friends. In the case of Shin, that meant his brother and Mother. Children are killed for minor infractions. Starvation is a reality from birth until death.
Shin is a teenager when he encounters a new prisoner with stories of the outside world. For Shin, it isn’t stories of modern technology that excites him, it’s stories about food. Imagine being able to go to a restaurant and order a meat dish. That is the fantasy that drives Shin to want to escape. He is ignorant about such things as empathy and compassion. He has no experience with emotions such as love and happiness. Shin knows only that survival is dependent on his ability to cheat, steal, and betray his fellow prisoners.
Shin is one of only a handful of people who have escaped from a North Korean prison camp. His experience is even more compelling because of his lack of knowledge of the world outside the prison camp. The actual escape is one of opportunity and poor planning. I won’t give away anything here, but after reading Shin’s account it’s easy to see why more people have not succeeded.
Once he is free from prison, Shin’s journey from emotionless prisoner to a free man begins. Writer Blaine Harden tells Shin’s story in a readable manner. This story began as a magazine article. It’s a fast read that shines a light on a humanitarian need that requires awareness and political resolve.