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review 2015-04-20 15:39
Escape from Hell
Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West - Blaine Harden

A true horror story though there is always a silver lightning at the end. Shin a North Korean born in camp 14 ; one of the harshest places in the world.

His escape and life in the camp reads to the banality of evil. to the selfishness of dictators to the cult of personality of North Korea's leaders - past and present.

Snitching is a way of life in the camp, in school and among family members. Shin Snitching caused major problems for him and affected his life later on.

When reading this book one should think like a camp resident to understand the actions of the Koreans. To the normal person those actions sounds like something from Lord of the Flies.

Recommended to anyone who wants a book that will keep him/her up at night.

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review 2014-07-25 13:42
For When You're Feeling So Happy It's Offensive
Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West - Blaine Harden


”Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, (the) Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, (the) Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney. North Koreans have no one like that.

Actually North Koreans have imgur, Dennis Rodman and Ken Jeong in Stevie Wonder glasses.

A couple of months back, Petra recommended this book to me after posting this link from imgur. I’m the least literate person I know when it comes to world politics but human depravity is always fascinating even within the harrowing context of non-fiction. And should you bother to check that link, I’m pretty certain you’d be just as compelled to make time for this book. To actually sit down and take a pause from complaining about the Starbucks barista never getting your name right or needing to charge your smartphone when it’s not even lunch time yet. 

Shin Dong-hyuk is a political prisoner born and raised in Camp 14, serving a sentence on behalf of the forefathers he’s never met. Within the concentration camp he is raised not as a person but as a cog in the Juche ideology; with a moral code comprising of ten laws, each involving someone getting shot if not observed. His story is a succession of snitching, scavenging and stealing in order to escape his perpetual state of starvation. Often these would lead into violence, incarceration and more violence that were simultaneously compelling, horrifying and astonishing that a part of me had to doubt the veracity of his story. But at the same time, the explicitness feels beyond the grasp of any stretch of imagination.

Excellent source material for aspiring dystopian writers out there, by the way. I couldn’t have dreamed this scenario if I tried.

I liked that Harden strove to link Shin’s story with the bigger events happening in the country as a whole, though these aspects could’ve been integrated better. How events in the global scale trickles from history to government to the very basic unit of this oppressed society: the man, the machine. 

However, there were redundant lapses and some pacing issues with regards to Shin’s backstory that often sent me into a numb lull from the unrelenting violence and portrayals of hunger. In some ways this helped me in finishing the other book I was reading because for a stretch, I could only read a chapter of this at a time.The first half a bit of a struggle to read through in one sitting but I was thoroughly engrossed with the second, after Shin has escaped from camp as he tries to assimilate in normal society. I can almost see the tearjerking historical fiction book this could inspire but I quite liked the ragged edges and halted progression this took in terms of Shin’s evolution. Because that’s what I had to constantly remind myself: he’s a real person and not a character.

I appreciate that Harden managed to cramp as much world politics as he could (I particularly liked that this addressed South Korea’s perspective from where it stands) in this one. Enough to make this casual reader curious about the rest of the story, about the Kim dynasty and what sparked this collective, for lack of a better term, insanity.

I wish I could end with something clever, something to encourage people to stop liking those Facebook posts to end world hunger, an inspiring passage or a quote. Unfortunately I’m left with none. 

Because as much as this was a book about hope, survival and the strength of the human spirit, it was also about the monsters that we all could be under much different circumstances.

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review 2014-06-28 22:01
Escape from Camp 14
Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West - Blaine Harden

I read this so that I could be prepared to use it in class as a research-based book for my high school English class, and while I am now prepared to teach the book, I'm not prepared to teach this book. I mean, how can I ever be prepared to teach my students that, even so many decades after the Holocaust when they world said, "Never again," here we have North Korea committing the same kind of inhuman atrocities--in the present day, in OUR lifetimes--and not over much is being done to close these camps and help bring healing to that nation. Yes, I know--the UN is finally in a bit of a flutter, but (forgive me if I inadvertently offend anyone) I don't have overwhelming confidence in the UN to put an end to a ruthless regime.


Anyway, Shin Dong-hyuk's story of birth and life in a North Korean prison/labor camp is gut-wrenching in its honesty and cruelty, and I found myself wincing, shaking my head, and wondering when, if ever, the Kim family dictatorship will finally be toppled. The cruelty and inhumanity that is the Kim family legacy is astounding in its depravity. That Shin was able to survive, escape, and (albeit) slowly build a life for himself is nothing short of a miracle. I feel for him; I want others to learn about North Korea and join in the fight to put an end to the travesty that is the DPRK ruling elite, and I hope my students will learn as much as they can from Shin's story. I hope I will continue to learn as much as I can from Shin's story.


The book includes pictures drawn by Shin to show some of the conditions and tortures he experienced in Camp 14. It also follows Shin into his post-escape life in the West and talks about how difficult "freedom" has been for him, as well as for other North Korean defectors. I wonder if Shin will ever truly be free. Then again, I ask myself, how can he be? Perhaps God will heal Shin's spirit, which was as broken as his body had been. That, at least, is my prayer for Shin Dong-hyuk.

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review 2014-04-13 15:39
Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West - Blaine Harden

Shin Dong-Hyuk grew up not knowing that there were other children in other places who were did not have to learn to catch and roast rats in order to keep from starving, or who were not subjected to endless hours of labor while watching for errant behavior of peers to be reported immediately in a sort of sacred duty of snitching. Such other children, however, were not born and raised completely isolated from the rest of society in the confines of Camp 14- an internment camp in the totalitarian state of North Korea reserved for those designated as "unredeemable," a status passed down through three generations to atone for the sin of defection from or speaking out against the North Korean government. 


This is book gives us an unprecedented look into the North Korean "gulags." Likewise, it is the story of what happens to a child raised in an environment without hope- one in which a child could dutifully report the overheard escape plans of his mother and brother to an on-duty guard and be filled with anger toward his mother as he watched her be hanged as she, and everyone in the camp, were made constantly aware that, even after their death, the families of attempted escapees would be tortured (as happened with Shin). The image (below) is from the film adaptation of his story, Camp 14 Total Control Zone, done for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.


Camp 14 Total Control Zone


Shin's ultimate escape (not a spoiler in my mind, as it's in the title) thrusts him into a world of irreconcilable contradictions, one to which he and the rare other escapees are often ill-equipped to adapt.


I came across two interesting collections of images- one a set of North Korean propaganda posters called "Poster Children of the Hermit Kingdom," and the latter a series of drawings done by a defectors from North Korean prisons, and thought their juxtaposition might be of interest. 


North Korean Propaganda


North Korean Prisoners in Pigeon Pose


While journalist/author, Blaine Harden, satisfactorily explores the disorienting and continuing culture shock that has resulted in some dissatisfaction among aid workers with a portion of North Korean refugees, I found myself wanting a bit more political and historical context than was within his intended scope (the book is a breezy 200 pages). I commend him for bringing to light (and to the masses) an ongoing crisis that it is all too easy to ignore. While I am certainly five stars worth of horrified, it wasn't the most compelling read for me- though certainly not a waste of time given its length. 



Image notes: 

[1] Source: Unseen Films

[2] Kim Jong Il comforts a distraught nation after his father's death on July 8, 1994. In the background is the 66-foot bronze statue of the Great Leader that was erected on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang in 1972. Dark skies in depictions of this period symbolize the growing threat from without. Source: Poster Children of the Hermit Kingdom

[3] A drawing portrays torture inside North Korean prisons. The caption reads "Pigeon position interrogation." (Kim Kwang-Il/United Nations) Source: North Korea's Horrors As Shown By One Defector's Drawings

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review 2014-03-10 01:12
Escape From Camp 14 Review!
Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West - Blaine Harden

I read Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden right at the end of February and I could not put it down. I read it in one day and was completely immersed in the terrifying world of North Korea's concentration camps.


Escape From Camp 14 is a nonfiction book that recounts Shin Dong Hyuk's life in and escape from one of North Korea's most brutal concentration camps, Camp 14. I really appreciated how well Blaine Harden balanced the "high action" events in Shin's life with engaging and easy to read background on North Korea's concentration camps and relationship with surrounding countries, namely South Korea and China.


Though I took the information that I received through this text with a grain of salt, as I have not been able to do any further research and it is extremely difficult to get any definitive facts about what is happening in North Korea, I felt like this was a really great place to start gaining some information about the extreme conditions in North Korea.


It should be difficult to believe that there are still concentration camps in the world, but unfortunately, I didn't find it hard to believe at all. For that reason, I think it is almost more important to spread awareness about these camps. Even with my limited knowledge about North Korea, I was not surprised to learn that many people inside and outside of Korea either do not know about these camp or turn a blind eye to them. 


This is a highly political book and one that brings up ethical issues, humanitarian issues, and personal issues as they are exemplified by the treatment of the prisoners and escapees of these camps. 


I would recommend this book to anyone interested in fast-paced, engaging, and thought-provoking nonfiction narratives. It is definitely worth reading.


Happy Reading!

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