Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden – Reviewed by Guy Portman
Escape from Camp 14 is the life story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, the only known person born in a North Korean gulag to have escaped. Shin started life in a fenced encampment less than fifty miles north of the capital Pyongyang, so vast that it can be viewed from space. This complex is the notorious Camp 14, an insular world of merciless inhumanity, so removed from life on the outside that Shin was unaware that the capital city Pyongyang existed or of the cult of the Kim family, which dominates North Korean society. The book gives us a unique insight into North Korean gulags, from the draconian laws, summary executions and the relentless privations of its inmates.
Shin recollects on the events that shaped his life, starting from a public execution, his first memory, to later imprisonment in an underground prison, torture, unremitting hunger and his relationship with two individuals, which allow him for the first time to imagine life outside the fence. Ultimately it is his interactions with these two people that lead him to escape through the electrified fence and into the unknown.
The second half of the book charts Shin’s journey through North Korea, escape across the Taedong River to China and a chance encounter that will bring him to Seoul and later America, where he attempts to adapt to a new life, far removed from the constraints of the camp yet littered with obstacles and marred with guilt.
Blaine Harden successfully portrays this personal narrative within the context of the Gulag system and North Korean society at large, allowing the reader to gain an understanding of this rogue and insular Stalinist state, struggling to survive in a rapidly changing world.