Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

September 4, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): The heartwrenching New York Times bestseller about the only known person born inside a North Korean prison camp to have escaped.

North Korea’s political prison camps have existed twice as long as Stalin’s Soviet gulags and twelve times as long as the Nazi concentration camps. No one born and raised in these camps is known to have escaped. No one, that is, except Shin Dong-hyuk.

In Escape From Camp 14, Blaine Harden unlocks the secrets of the world’s most repressive totalitarian state through the story of Shin’s shocking imprisonment and his astounding getaway. Shin knew nothing of civilized existence—he saw his mother as a competitor for food, guards raised him to be a snitch, and he witnessed the execution of his mother and brother.

The late “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il was recognized throughout the world, but his country remains sealed as his third son and chosen heir, Kim Jong Eun, consolidates power. Few foreigners are allowed in, and few North Koreans are able to leave. North Korea is hungry, bankrupt, and armed with nuclear weapons. It is also a human rights catastrophe. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people work as slaves in its political prison camps. These camps are clearly visible in satellite photographs, yet North Korea’s government denies they exist.

Harden’s harrowing narrative exposes this hidden dystopia, focusing on an extraordinary young man who came of age inside the highest security prison in the highest security state. Escape from Camp 14 offers an unequalled inside account of one of the world’s darkest nations. It is a tale of endurance and courage, survival and hope.

Reaction:

This book sounded pretty amazing to me, and I was anxious to read it. While some parts were certainly shocking and enlightening — particularly the details about how the prisoners tried to prevent starvation by chewing their own cud and eating undigested corn kernels from cow dung — the overall effect was not as I had hoped.

First, Shin was hard to get to know. The author had virtually unlimited access to the man and should have spent more time developing Shin’s character. He remained a shadowy figure throughout, making it extremely difficult to sympathize with him or root for him. The moment of his escape should have been triumphant and heartwarming; instead, it came off as rather a ho-hum incident. Similarly, when fortunate things kept happening for him, such as finding army clothing that allowed him to travel almost without question and securing both a job and lodging on the other side of the border, there wasn’t anything uplifting about these events.

Second, the writing was pretty bland. I wasn’t expecting this to read like a thriller, of course, but I think the onus was on the author to make readers care about what was happening on the page. His description of the camp itself was lacking, so even now I’m not quite sure what the place was really like. Yes, there were random accounts of beatings and extreme hardship, but I don’t even have a sense of what a typical “day in the life” of a prisoner was. Plus, it didn’t help that Harden jumped around from topic to topic instead of relating the narrative in a more conventional way.

Third, the part about Shin’s adjustment to freedom felt…anticlimactic or something. I feel bad for saying this, but I lost all patience with Shin when he kept quitting jobs and complaining about his inability to pay bills. Don’t get me wrong: I totally understand that this was a NORMAL response by former prisoners and sufferers of PTSD, but it didn’t make the book any better or more interesting.

Rating:

While Escape from Camp 14 offers a glimpse of what it’s like in one of North Korea’s most infamous labor camps, this is just not a very good book. I don’t mean to diminish Shin’s struggles or the plight of the remaining prisoners; I’m simply giving my honest opinion. Perhaps in the hands of a more capable writer the story would have been more profound and affecting, but it’s actually kind of boring as is. I give this one just 2 stars out of 5.

3 Responses to “Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden”

  1. I had the same reaction, I didn’t really want a horror story but the whole book felt so flat. I wonder how much the author is to blame, as it seemed like Shin was elusive (or initially lied) about disclosing his experiences and hadn’t seemed to ponder them much himself. His years working on the camp farm (the happiest of his childhood) seemed dismissed with a sentence. After he came to the US, I was impatient with the story as well, except for the one speech he gave. I wish him all the best but as a book? cannot recommend it.

  2. Hi Koneko,

    Thanks for your comment! I’m relieved to find that I’m not the only one who felt this way about the book. It seems that it could have/should have been more emotionally powerful, but it simply wasn’t. I initially felt bad about my reaction (is it right to have wanted Shin’s terrible experiences to be more dramatic?), but have since come to terms with it.

    And I think most of the blame should fall on the author. It’s his job to identify shortcomings in the story and to push for the necessary info to make the work better. Yes, Shin was elusive. At that point, perhaps the author should have taken the time to honestly evaluate whether he had enough material for a book or to just leave it as a magazine article (or whatever).

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