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Harden’s careful account goes beyond anything a dystopian novelist could invent but Escape from Camp 14 confirms a key reality. Even North Korea cannot fully extinguish the quest for freedom. Shin’s escape, here outlined in considerable detail, was truly miraculous. In South Korea and the United States, Shin worked to restore the humanity of which the regime had bilked him, and now does not hesitate to speak out.
“We think the Holocaust is a thing of the past, but it is not. This continues in North Korea.” Shin made that statement to reporters shortly before North Korea’s latest missile launch and following the release of Hidden Gulag, the second edition of a report by the Committee for Human Rights in Korea calling for the dismantling of the prison-camp system. The North Korean regime maintains the camp system does not exist, but the issues do not stop there.
This regime deploys nuclear weapons and has recently threatened to turn South Korea, a key U.S. ally, into “ashes.” The regime also aids terrorist groups and kidnaps foreign nationals. In the competition for most loathsome regime in the world, North Korea has few rivals, and Escape from Camp 14 makes a convincing case that it is by far the worst. As such, it deserves more criticism than it currently gets.
Western Democracies, with free elections, independent courts and the rule of law also get criticized on human-rights grounds. When that happens, government officials and journalists alike should cross-check and compare the treatment that North Korea gets from the critics. The United States and its allies need not take seriously those who can’t tell the difference between free but imperfect democracies and a genocidal Communist regime of fathomless depravity.
Harden provides maps, photos and historical background of the Korean conflict. The book should have included an index and perhaps a reference to I.F. Stone, a Soviet spy and Stalinist the American left still hails as an independent journalist. Stone’s Hidden History of the Korean War charged that South Korea had invaded the North, with backing of the United States. As it happens, that’s exactly what Shin Dong-hyuk was taught in Camp 14.
The Korean War never officially ended and under Kim Jong Un, the latest incumbent, one sees no sign of liberalization. That’s why Escape from Camp 14 and Hidden Gulag will be important reading for years to come.
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