Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What I'm Reading: Escape From Camp 14

Escape From Camp 14 is the name of the current book I'm reading.  It's about Shin Dong-Hyuk, a man who was born and lived his entire life in one of North Korea's six political prison camps until he escaped at age 23.  To get an idea how remarkable this is, keep in mind that out of some 200,000 prisoners in these camps, only 35 have ever escaped and made it to South Korea or the West.  Of these 35, Shin is the only one to ever escape from his particular camp, Camp 14.
Of course, North Korea is arguably the worst country in the world, even for those of its people who live regular lives.  As you might imagine, life for Shin was beyond horrific.  Basically, for the first 23 years of his life, he never had a time when he didn't feel hungry.  He never had a friend.  He saw his mother and brother executed before his eyes, and many other executions besides.  He never saw an act of mercy, and literally did not know the meaning of love.  In school he learned only the bare basics of literacy and numeracy before being sent to a lifetime of hard labor.  When he was an adult in the camp, he happened to meet a recently arrived prisoner who told him he was from the capital, Pyongyang.  Shin asked him what Pyongyang was, having never heard of it.
Several things struck me as notable or ran through my head as I read the book.  One, being born in the camp may actually have given Shin an advantage in escaping over those who arrived there from outside.  As he knew no other life, enduring the hardships required to break out were no special difficulty, nor did he feel any guilt or regret about anything left behind.
Another thing I noticed was that the camp seemed to present a perversion of Christian values.  No doubt the camp's values also conflict with Korea's traditional Buddhist values as well, but there seemed to be some particular parallels to Christianity.  Perhaps this was intentional?  One, the camp drilled into the head of its prisoners a sick version of the 10 Commandments (i.e. Commandment One: Do Not Try to Escape.).  Two, there was a universal value impressed upon the prisoners, snitching, rather like Christianity holds love to be its universal value.  Three, where the greatest of Christian virtues is hope, the camp attempted to remove all hope from its prisoners.  Indeed, it was only when the fellow prisoner I mentioned before told Shin of the outside world that hope was kindled in him for the first time.
The final notable thing is that in the months leading up to his escape and the years after, Shin has gradually acquired something of a normal emotional life.  Some concepts still confuse him, like the idea of forgiveness.  And he still finds it hard to trust people, always wondering when he first meets someone what that person is trying to get from him.  But he has a girlfriend and knows love.  He's come to appreciate honesty, and kindness towards others, and affection.
Shin reminds me of the boy in the book A Boy Called It, a true story of the worst child abuse case ever discovered in California.  Despite an unimaginably cruel upbringing, the boy in that book grew up to live a normal life with a family and children of his own.  This is inspiring, in a way, in that the better aspects of human nature cannot be killed under even the worst circumstances.