North Korea Revealed

Trevor Carolan

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Gooder?

Escape from Camp 14. Blaine Harden. Viking, 205 p. $26.95
Review by Trevor Carolan, author of Return to Stillness, Celtic Highway,
and 14 other books of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, translations, and anthologies.

[Warning Note: This is a graphic, disturbing, and sadly true story.]

Camp 14 bookHaving recently passed through Seoul, the uber-dynamic place to be in East Asia nowadays, Blaine Harden’s shocking work sub-titled “One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West” came, understandably, as an eye-catcher. It was hard to walk through the streets of Seoul, a city that works and where any space that a tree could possibly be planted has been greened, and not feel that one creepy thought – the worm in the crunchy apple – that it could all vanish in a blink. That’s how it is though when you live a spit from the bat-shit crazy monsters running North Korea, the world’s last Socialist Workers Paradise.

First off, you won’t read this appalling account of life in the slave-labour camps of the Fabulous Glorious Leader or his latest clone and remain unmoved. I first heard about this book through the Asia media pipeline, then it began getting attention here in North America. There’s a story in it making the rounds that no one seems able to deny. A little girl born into one of the worst of the country’s slave labour camps is beaten to death with a wooden pointer by her teacher in front of the class. Her crime? She had hidden five kernels of corn in her pocket. It’s not a sudden death; a wooden pointer isn’t a baseball bat, it takes a while hitting the right spots on a kneeling child to puff up the skull and cause heavy bleeding from the nose. But the teacher works manfully until he gets it right and the child dies before being carried out by her classmates. Rules are rules.  Hoarding is a death sentence.

Harden is an investigative reporter for Frontline, the PBS news documentary program. He writes for The Economist and worked as Washington Post bureau chief in East Asia. He admits that even while working in South Korea, where apparently psychotic acts of terrorism from the North are tragically routine, it was hard to believe the stories he’d heard of the first known escapee from North Korea’s notorious slave-labour camp system. Political defectors make it across the border fairly regularly – army or police officers fed up and wanting a better deal in the South.

Shin Dong-Hyuk was different. Born in 1982 in what is known as the worst of North Korea’s many slave labour camps—where human rights organizations say between 154,000-200,000 are imprisoned, he differed from the camp inmates we’re used to reading about. Unlike the characters in prison accounts by Solzhenitsyn or Elie Wiesel, he never knew another life. His crime was simply being born, in his case to parents of families that had had a member cross over to the south during the Civil War of the early 1950s. With minimal education and absolutely no knowledge of the world outside the electrified camp wire, and certainly none of the world outside North Korea – nor of its leaders, nor of China next door, he was raised to be a slave camp inmate, to live and work a relatively short life in terror, then die.

Cchild soldier, N.Koreaalling it Kafkaesque doesn’t do this nightmare justice. Shin saw his mother hanged and his elder brother shot. Death was more or less part of the landscape and hunger virtually omnipresent. The Oliver Twist-style meals, such as they were, consisted eternally of thin corn-meal mush, kim-chi pickle, and salt. Camps are governed by the Bowibu, the National Security Agency, and discipline is savage. As Harden recounts, “Guilt by association is legal in North Korea. A wrongdoer is often imprisoned with his parents and his children. Kim Il Sung laid down the law in 1972: “[E]nemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations.”

That clarifies things. Sort of. But Harden explains that North Korea’s labour camps – one of them geographically larger than the City of Los Angeles – “have now existed twice as long as the Soviet Gulag and about twelve times longer than the Nazi concentration camps. There is no dispute about where these camps are.  High-resolution satellite photographs, accessible on Google earth to anyone with an Internet connection, show vast fenced compounds sprawling through the rugged mountains of North Korea.”

Starvation, guards with “almost complete license to abuse and rape prisoners,” 12-15 hour working days six days a week, compulsory political re-education and self-criticism sessions; life without soap, toilet paper, socks, underclothes, gloves in frigid weather, working and sleeping in filthy rags…This is the dystopian world of North Korea’s camps. The best one hopes for, escapee Shin says, is an extra scrap of food, possibly a better job like feeding the pigs or at least not being assigned to the coal mines where black lung, coal gas explosion, or tunnel collapse almost guarantee premature death. Everyone is an informer, including himself, Shin admits. It’s the only way to survive. For meritorious prisoner conduct, there may even be the ultimate pay-off, a “reward marriage” with a prisoner of the other sex. Allowed to sleep together five nights per year, the system allows for development of a curious progeny – stunningly ignorant human beings like Shin before his flight.

Escape was never even a thought, Harden writes of his subject. But a vicious torture session and seven months’ solitary confinement underground at age 22 got him wondering. Released back to labour, he met a new inmate, someone who knew what it was like out there in the big world and shares his secrets. Politics never enters into Shin’s escape plan. His idea is purely to escape to a place where it’s possible “to eat grilled meat.” Harden writes plausibly about Shin’s escape; it must have happened, though why the authorities didn’t pursue him harder is a mystery. Some lucky breaks, minor crimes and thefts, a hobo life made possible only by a collapsing government system and routine police and border patrol corruption on the outside. China stood just over the river – an unlikely home of the free. With hundreds of thousands of regular North Koreans who have already flocked illegally into China – you meet them readily in Beijing and Dalian – Shin at least had a chance. Bounced around, he made it to South Korea.

Kim Jong un & Jong il

Family of Psychopaths: The late Kim Jong-il, and heir Kim Jong-un, “Supreme Commander” in the world’s creepiest nation.

And so Harden’s tale. How is it though that this nightmare state has been allowed to continue its psychotic policies? Who benefits? With merely a word in the ears of the right army generals from nearby China – the good buddy neighbor that effectively keeps North Korea in business these days – surely this entirely bankrupt, Orwellian Animal Farm nation would begin shutting down.

Isn’t there a Richard Gere or Mia Farrow out there who wants to get behind this, maybe borrow a little bit of that crazy K-Pop rapper Psy’s Gangnam-style? Harden’s work makes it clear that it’s time to put the psycho state known as North Korea in the dust-bin of history. Somebody please call the fashion police on this place and remember to turn out the lights.