Imagine living over 20 years as a prisoner in a horrible labor camp. Chronically malnourished and dressed in rags, you’re beaten and abused on a regular basis by the camp’s sadistic guards. Not only are all escape attempts punishable by death, but a prisoner who hears even rumors of a possible future escape must report them to the camp’s authorities or face torture and probable execution. Due to overwork, malnutrition and abuse, most inmates die before reaching their late 40s.
Now imagine living in such a hellish environment and not knowing any other life. You’re living in such a horrendous place because forty odd years ago, your parents’ relatives were imprisoned there because they were perceived as political undesirables. Years later, camp authorities allowed two of those individuals to marry and later you were born-in the camp. Innocent of any crime, you’ve lived your entire life in hellish captivity, completely oblivious of the outside world. Then one day, you muster up your courage to finally escape, knowing full well if you don’t succeed death will surely follow.
That is the grim world journalist Blaine Harden describes in his 2012 book Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. It is the unbelievable story of Shin Dong-hyuk’s 20 plus years as an inmate of North Korea’s most infamous labor camp, his sole distinction as the only prisoner to ever successfully escape from such a camp and ending with his new life in America. Despite the serious nature of the subject matter, I nevertheless ripped through Harden’s slim book, devouring it in almost one sitting, much like I did with Steve Pemberton’s memoir of abuse, survival and personal triumph A Chance in the World.
Before the end of the year I’d like to follow-up Harden’s book with a couple of others that happen to deal with the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea. I’ve been wanting to read Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy ever since Kim and Jo reviewed the acclaimed book on their respective blogs. Also on my list is Bruce Bechtel’s Defiant Failed State, since I enjoyed watching the talk the author gave not long ago on Book TV. Of course, with North Korea seemingly always in the news, adding those two books to my reading list certainly couldn’t hurt.