After the two Koreas separated 60 years ago and the North’s Kim Il Sung family established a communist monarchy that gradually plunged North Korea into privation, there have been countless North Koreans who have escaped to the prosperous South. Thousands have narrated their horrific stories of life inside the world’s most secretive society, that makes George Orwell’s 1984 seem like a carnival in comparison.
A handful have even managed to escape North Korea’s prison camps. The book I just finished reading, Escape from Camp 14, by Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden, is one such tale of an escape from a prison camp, a particularly gruesome biography of North Korean refugee, Shin Dong-Hyuk.
The difference in this story is that, Shin is the first escapee who was born inside a North Korean concentration camp. He was the spawn of a ‘reward marriage’, a kind of bonus awarded to prisoners for hard work and regular snitching. Snitching on fellow inmates, even when they were family members, was an all-pervasive activity that was rewarded with extra rations and less taxing physical labor. It meant the difference between life and death.
Shin’s parents were incarcerated not because they had committed any crime. They were thrown in prison because his uncle had escaped to the South and like the Soviets and the Chinese then, all crimes were considered blood crimes in which whole families were made responsible for an individual’s deeds. Thus, as his uncle’s remaining family, Shin’s parents were imprisoned for life.
It is difficult to imagine being born inside a concentration camp and growing up in an environment where sons snitch on their parents and brothers snitch on brothers, just to stay alive, to get an extra helping of cabbage soup or a marginally lighter work detail. We place a high value on feelings of loyalty, friendship and trust and we cherish them in ourselves and in others. But in North Korea’s prison camps, these words hold zero meaning. The only emotion felt is fear and the desperate animal need to survive at any cost.
Before this book had been published in 2008, Shin Dong-Hyuk, while living in Seoul after his escape, had written his own memoir in Korean ‘Escape to the outside world’. Unfortunately by then, after being subjected to literally thousands of tales of escape over the years, South Korean readers had grown a kind of ‘oh yeah? so, what’s new?’ mindset.
Shin’s book bombed but a translated copy managed to land on the desk of US President George W Bush, who was moved enough and/or saw enough propaganda potential in it, to invite Shin to the White House. Since then, Shin has turned into an effective North Korean human rights campaigner.
The book itself is a non-stop pageant of gore and unimaginable cruelty. It is unyielding in it’s pain and despair. The picture it paints of the nation leaves you saying to yourself, ‘surely this can’t be happening in this day and age’. It tells of 8 year old boys (sons of prisoners), forming work details whose job was to scrape feces off toilets, to be used as compost for the vegetable patches inside the camp. Of inmates living through winter on tree bark, shrubs and rats. Of a little girl beaten to death for hiding a ear of corn inside her clothes. Prisoners being given quotas for snitching on their fellow inmates, failing to comply bringing starvation and beatings.
As a 12 year old, Shin decided he needed better conditions and the only way he could get them was through some snitching. When he overheard his mother and brother discussing the possibility of escaping, he thought nothing of snitching on them, knowing fully well that the punishment for even thinking of escaping was death.
Shin’s mother was hanged and his brother shot and he was made to watch both executions. He had no regrets at that time, he says. He actually believed that they deserved to die for plotting to escape.
Soon after, Shin had an older prisoner, a disgraced party functionary, for company and through him, he came to learn about the world beyond the electrified fences. That was a turning point in his life, a cusp at which he started hoping for the first time, of escape and freedom.
The author brings out certain aspects that I found worth noting. Prisoners in Nazi concentration camps tended to form small groups of two or three who looked out for each other. If one was ill, the other stood next to him and propped him up at roll call. Food stolen was shared within the group. This bonding into tightly cohesive units helped thousands survive the harsh camp conditions. Anne Frank, made famous by her diary, braved starvation, cold and typhus in Bergen-Belsen, but she gave up the will to live after her sister, Margot, died from the shock of a fall from her bunk. Anne died two days later.
In contrast, the author writes that the North Korean camp system thrives on snitching, pitting prisoner against prisoner in a vicious fight for survival. The prisoner is on his own. There are no family, no friends, no one at all to trust. Compared with just 4 years that the Nazi camps were in existence, the North Korean concentration camps have been operating for the past 60 years.
The Nazis had an ideology, however depraved it might have been. Even at the base level, one could conclude that most Germans were anti-sematic deep within and didn’t like Jews overall, a feeling well portrayed in the opening sequence of the Quentin Tarantino film, ‘Inglorious Basterds’, where Christopher Waltz’s character, SD Standartenfuhrer Hans Landa likens Jews to rats. ‘You don’t know why you don’t like them, you just don’t like them.’ There was a reason behind the holocaust.
In comparison to the Nazi dynamics, if one considers the senseless cruelty of the Japanese toward the conquered populace of Korea and China prior to and during the 2nd World War, or the North Korean establishment’s horrific treatment of its own citizens inside it’s prison camps, this book makes one wonder if maybe Europeans are by nature more ‘civilized’ in their oppression than Orientals. One also wonders why the holocaust receives so much press while the North Korean prison camps don’t seem to merit much mention. This book should also serve as a wake-up call to those misguided souls who admire North Korea as the ‘little guy’ who stands up to ‘American imperialism’.
Anyways, if you have picked up ‘Escape from camp-14’ to read, you’ll need a mickey of brandy to calm you down and help you get through it.
Call me if you need help finishing the mickey.