Lest we forget, the following horror is
where the unattainable political, social and economic goal of equal
results always leads.
The Wall Street JournalApril 7-8, 2012
"Escape From Camp 14" tells the
story of one man's incarceration and personal awakening in North Korea's
There is no
dispute about the existence of the North Korean gulag. Anyone with a computer
and access to the Internet can go to Google Earth and zoom in on a string of
vast prison camps located in the unforgiving, mountainous center of the
country. The U.S. State Department
and international human-rights organizations put the number of inmates at about
200,000. As many as one million North Koreans are believed to have perished
there. Only three people are known to have escaped.
Shin Dong-hyuk, a young man who defied the odds and managed to flee, first from
the gulag and then from North
Korea itself. He made it to China and eventually reached safety in South Korea in
2006. His remarkable story is told by Blaine Harden, a former Washington Post
reporter, in "Escape From Camp 14." It is a searing account of one
man's incarceration and personal awakening in North Korea's highest-security
The book is
also an indictment of the barbaric regime that rules North Korea, the world's most
repressive totalitarian state. Mr. Shin is roughly the same age as Kim Jong
Eun, who took over as North
Korea's dictator after his father's death in
December. Mr. Harden notes that the ruler and Mr. Shin "personify the
antipodes of privilege and privation in North Korea, a nominally classless
society where, in fact, breeding and bloodlines decide everything."
Mr. Shin was born in Camp 14, the offspring
of two inmates who had been rewarded for good behavior. The
prison authorities assigned his mother to his father and allowed them to sleep
together five nights a year. The boy
barely knew his father, living with his mother and older brother until he reached
his early teens, when he was moved to a dormitory. Mr. Shin told the author
that he had no experience of maternal love. He viewed his mother not as a
source of affection but as a competitor for the limited amount of food that was
available to them.
Prisons in North Korea are known for
starvation-level rations, backbreaking work and brutal treatment. But unlike
most prisoners, who, if they survive, at least have the possibility of release,
everyone at Camp 14 is serving a life sentence. The
camp ranks as a "total control zone," where prisoners are deemed
Shin's unforgivable crime was being born of "bad seed." His father
was sent to Camp 14 because two of his brothers had fled south during the
Korean War. Under an edict laid down by Kim Il Sung, founder of the Democratic
of Korea, the crimes of
such traitors must be paid for by their relatives, "through three
generations." For most of Mr. Shin's life, Mr. Harden notes, he accepted
that his tainted lineage meant that he deserved the suffering inflicted on him
at Camp 14—"he believed the guards' preaching about original sin."
For children at Camp 14, schooling
consisted mainly of memorizing the camp's 10 rules. Rule No. 3: "Anyone
who steals or conceals foodstuffs will be shot immediately." When Mr. Shin
was in the first grade, his teacher discovered five kernels of corn in a
classmate's pocket. The girl was
required to kneel down in front of the class. Mr. Shin and his classmates
watched as their teacher beat her to death. She was 6 years old.
At 14, he was forced to witness two other
executions: those of his mother and brother. They
had been arrested for violating Rule No. 1: "Do not try to escape."
His mother was hanged, and his brother was shot. The
only emotion Mr. Shin felt was anger. He blamed them for his interrogation and
torture after their arrests. Guards bound his hands and feet, hoisted him into
the air by means of a hook pierced into his abdomen and dangled him over an
His escape from Camp 14—in 2005, when he
was 22—came about because of a chance encounter with a new inmate, a man who
had held a high-ranking government position. The
two men shared a desperation to get out of the camp, whatever the risk, and
plotted to reach China,
a country Mr. Shin had never heard of but one where his friend had relatives.
His friend, though, was killed during their escape over the electric fence that
surrounded the camp; Mr. Shin crawled over his corpse to freedom. Thanks to luck as well as to skills he had honed at
Camp 14—stealing, lying and fighting—he managed to travel to the border and
cross into China by himself. In that country, he was helped by ethnic Koreans,
local Christians and, eventually, a South Korean journalist who escorted him to
the South Korean consulate in Shanghai.
Parts of "Escape From Camp 14"
can be painful to read. Mr. Harden spares no detail of Mr. Shin's torment,
physical or psychological. He writes in a direct, matter-of-fact style that
puts the horrors he is relating in dark relief. He is equally explicit in
describing Mr. Shin's difficulties in learning to succeed in a free society—his
nightmares, his inability to hold down a job, his troubles making friends or
placing trust in anyone. There is
"no easy way for Shin to adapt to life outside the fence," he writes.
Mr. Harden quotes him as saying, "I am evolving from being an
animal." Today he is living in Seoul and trying to raise
the world's awareness of his countrymen's plight.
of North Korea's
gulag extend beyond the lives of those unfortunate men, women and children who
live and die there. The threat of
being sent to the camps—and the monumental human suffering that
implies—terrorizes every North Korean. It is one of the brutal control
mechanisms by which the Kim family regime stays in power.
Ms. Kirkpatrick, a former deputy editor of the Journal's editorial page, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of the forthcoming "Escape From North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad."