CAMP 14, Blaine Harden

Reading is active escapism, not passive as TV is. Your mind wanders as you read, pause and think. Here’s a book that will not only make you pause, but will make you appreciate your own life, more than you can imagine…


A New York Times bestseller, the shocking story of one of the few people born in a North Korean political prison to have escaped and survived.

North Korea is isolated and hungry, bankrupt and belligerent. It is also armed with nuclear weapons. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are being held in its political prison camps, which have existed twice as long as Stalin’s Soviet gulags and twelve times as long as the Nazi concentration camps. Very few born and raised in these camps have escaped. But Shin Donghyuk did.

In Escape from Camp 14, acclaimed journalist Blaine Harden tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk and through the lens of Shin’s life unlocks the secrets of the world’s most repressive totalitarian state. 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 own family. Through Harden’s harrowing narrative of Shin’s life and remarkable escape, he offers an unequaled inside account of one of the world’s darkest nations and a riveting tale of endurance, courage, and survival.
Source: GoodReads

Richard’s comments
The story is about a young man, Shin Dong-hyuk, who escapes a North Korean prison camp, a camp comparable to any in the gulag system of Stalinist Russia or any concentration camp of Nazi Germany. Shin was born in one of these camps and was doomed to die there, prematurely. However, he meets someone in the camp who mesmerizes him with stories of food and its abundant availability outside the camp. In fact, outside North Korea, in China. Shin is taught the dream of escape, something which would never have entered his mind had destiny not brought this other man into his life.

Shin would not have had any idea of escape, nor many other concepts: of right and wrong, of truth and untruth, of morality and immorality. His life was a state of constant brainwashing with falsehoods, North Korean amoral doctrine and life without principles beyond the basic one of survival at all costs. He is brainwashed to believe it is proper to expose his fellow prisoners when they steal food, steal clothing or talk about doing something which transgresses the rules of the prison camps. This life without principles or values as accepted by people of any religion, citizens of any democracy are non-existent in this North Korean prison state. Exposing even his own parents is done without judgement, without evaluation or without moral considerations. It is what must be done in such totalitarian state run prison system in order to live till tomorrow.

Incredibility that is unfathomable
The conditions in which the prisoners live is beyond abhorrent. Their lives doomed to incessant violence, ceaseless beatings and continuous persecution by their guards and in many instances, by their peers who seek to better their own living condition by loyalty and alliance with their captors. The story is not so deplorable because of the conditions under which the prisoners live, for these are the same as those who have been imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps as well as those who have been held in the Gulags of Stalin’s era. No what makes the story so appalling is that it exists today, in reality, in a country, in North Korea.

Every reader must find it incredible that such an existence is possible, that so many people, estimated as many as a quarter million, are captives in such prisons. In this day and age, with so many democratic countries in the world, with the might of so many alliances united supposedly for peace, and with the United Nations, human rights organizations, doctors without frontiers, and so on all revealing exposing human rights violations wherever they may occur. How is such a state existing possible?

Sanctions have been imposed on North Korea and there is a perimeter of military safeguard funded and aided by American money and technology. But nothing else seems to be able to influence the North Korean government or pressure it into liberalizing life for their imprisoned population. Criticisms from humanitarian, human rights and peace organizations are totally ignored by NK.

What can be done?
Other than isolating NK economically, separating the country from every other nation in the world, militarizing their borders and giving military support and troop assistance to South Korea and Japan, not much else can be done. No western country other than the US has the military might to challenge NK and nor wants to challenge it for NK is armed with nuclear weapons. At the moment, NK’s leadership is not so deranged to not recognize than a nuclear assault against South Korea would result in an all out nuclear war in which NK would be annihilated and totally obliterated from the face of the earth, with no one surviving, not a single member of the elite, of the ruling faction. One estimate guesses over a million people would be killed if such a war occurred. Hence, the military stasis continues, no matter how abhorrent and or insane it may seem.

Shin, an asocial misfit in the west
Shin escapes ultimately, through a series of events that are a combination of great luck and some astute personal decisions made during the escape. His luck and natural intelligence resulted in his success but when one read’s of his life after, one sees he may have escaped the barb wired fences of his concrete prison but he cannot escape the imprisonment of his own mindset a result of his conditioning and brainwashing in his captivity.

He knows nothing about life in the west, live in a free society: the use of money, commercial transactions, retail exchanges, city life, technology, apartment living, working. Worse, he has no idea of socialization within a society, having friends and how to deal with people. Even worse, he knows nothing about the principles and value systems which we all have, by which we live, and which we take for granted with no thought whatsoever as to their existence or how we are to manage them on a daily basis. He knows nothing about morality and ethics as he was taught these conccepts, nor did he ever have experience of them. He even knows nothing about relationships, friendships and love as these were not foreign concepts for him in his past life, there were completely non-existent notions in that world.

Appreciation of our life
A reader cannot help but be jarred into thinking about life in the western world while reading this book. The ideals and conditions by which we live daily are brought into focus when one reads of a person who has never heard of these things, and has absolutely no concept of what they are or how to manage them. The book is a jarring jolt into reality. For most people, it may be a jolting recognition and appreciation of what we have as citizens of a free world where we have learned these principles, their nuances and their practice. How does one navigate in a world with these concepts if one has never experienced any of them, never been tutored in their practice and use? What kind of reactions and emotions does such a person have when they encounter our world? They must feel like a PSTD victims constantly without any let up for every social interaction in our society has layers and values of which these people are totally ignorant. What a state of mind to live in. Could any human such as Shin, a man who escaped at about the age of 22 or so, be able to reassemble the puzzles of life after living an entire life in a mentally scrambled and emotionally vacuumed world. Incredible.

This is an educational book, informational describing a world that sounds like fiction, but it is real. The books is an emotional read if one is empathetic to its protagonist, Shin. It reinforces that mankind has a malevolent facet to it which seems irascible, no matter how hard we try to make the world right.

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