Tuesday September 11, 2012
No real escape
Review by MARTIN SPICE
Brutal, horrific pain continues to blight a man who crawled his way out of a prison camp and now devotes his life to human rights.
Escape From Camp 14
Author: Blaine Harden
Publisher: Mantle, 242 pages
THE image of North Korea we have all seen is the aerial shot taken at night. Whilst the lights of South Korea and China burn brightly all around it, North Korea itself is in almost total darkness. A dark hole in a well-lit world.
Go to Google Maps and enter North Korea and another surprise awaits you. This time it is white. In stark contrast to the borderlands of China and South Korea there is simply a white space with a single name: the capital, Pyongyang. Zoom in and an unmarked whiteness fills the screen. No towns, no roads, no physical features, just white space. Above all, no prison camps. For these you have to go to Google Earth.
There are various estimates of how many people are incarcerated in North Korea’s camps, but it is pretty safe to say there are at least 100,000 and possibly as many as 300,000.
The camps, of course, do not exist according to the official line. In all that unmapped, unmarked white space there are not really tens of thousands of slaves living just above starvation level. How could there be? Nonetheless, type Camp 14 into Google Earth and you will find lines of grey buildings that have a definite concentration camp air about them.
“There is no ‘human rights issue’ in this country as everyone leads the most dignified and happy life,” said the North Korean News Agency on March 6, 2009.
The body of Shin Dong-hyuk tells a different story. One of his fingers is missing a top joint – cut off by camp guards as punishment for dropping a sewing machine. He has terrible burn scars on his back from being suspended by a rope over a cauldron of fire. His lower abdomen is scarred from the hook that was gaffed through his skin to raise and lower him over the hot coals. That was when he was 13. The most telling scars are those on his lower legs. They come from the high voltage fence that he crawled through to escape from Camp 14.
If the physical scars are brutal, the mental ones will take longer to heal. Shin was born in the camp, one of two children resulting from a union arranged by guards as a reward for his father’s skill on a lathe. His father and “wife” were allowed to see each other only a handful of times in a year. His mother treated him brutally. Any idea that being prisoners together caused inmates to bond against a common enemy are rapidly dispelled.
“Outsiders have a wrong understanding of the camp. It is not just the soldiers who beat us. It is the prisoners themselves who are not kind to each other. There is no sense of community.”
Instead there is betrayal and distrust. Prisoners are encouraged to snitch on each other. Their reward? Food. In conditions that constantly threaten starvation and where malnutrition is normal, prisoners will do almost anything for extra food.
One night, Shin hears his mother and brother plotting an escape. Angry at them and brainwashed into a culture of snitching, he informs on them. His mother is hanged; his brother is executed by firing squad. Shin is forced to watch.
And what does he feel? Nothing. He feels nothing because they have broken the camp rules and therefore they deserve to die. It is many years before he is able to admit that he had betrayed them and a great deal longer before he is able to forgive himself.
Shin is the only known survivor of the camps to tell his story. There are thousands of defectors from North Korea to the South but only three people ever are known to have escaped from the camps. Escape From Camp 14 is a brutal and horrific story. There are plenty of war stories that glorify escapes from high security prisons but this is not one of them.
Even Shin’s escape is hedged with pain. Told by the guards to stay close to a new prisoner and report everything he says to them, he takes the first step to independent thought by befriending the man and keeping his secrets. Through him he learns something of the outside world.
In particular, he learns that in China you can go into a restaurant and order meat, as much grilled meat as you like. That is incentive enough to escape.
So the pair plot and plan, take advantage of a work detail near the perimeter fence and run for it. His colleague dies on the high voltage fence; Shin crawls over his body and with seering electrical burns to his legs makes his way by random chance to China and eventually, South Korea. And there, over a long period of time, his story is finally told.
A happy ending? Not really. Shin is damaged in every sense of the word. He is taken to Los Angeles to join the South Korean community there, but he refuses psychiatric help and returns to South Korea. Adjustment to a materialistic and highly competitive world is virtually impossible. The scars of the camp will take a lifetime to heal although he has found a human rights cause, the camps, to which he has devoted himself.
Escape From Camp 14 is an important book as all survivor testimonies are important. It spells out, as nothing has done before, the sheer duplicity, brutality, horror and inhumanity of the Kim dynasty. Coupled with Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy, the white space on the map is slowly being coloured in. We can no longer claim ignorance.