The incredible story of a man born into Communist slavery who found freedom in the West.
“North Korea’s labor camps,” says Blaine Harden “have now existed twice as long as the Soviet Gulag and about twelve times longer than the Nazi concentration camps.” Harden, a former Washington Post bureau chief in East Asia, has written an important account of a man born into one of the camps and the first man to escape from the notorious Camp 14.
“Enemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations.” That was the view of Kim Il Sung, who with Stalin’s blessing invaded South Korea in 1950. The policy continued under Kim Jong Il, who deployed the camps to eliminate the evil seed. According to escapee Shin Dong-hyuk, the camps work well as a killing machine.
Shin’s view is that Kim Jong Il was worse than Hitler because while Hitler attacked his enemies, the North Korean dictator worked his own people to death in places like Camp 14. In the event of some major action, the North Korean regime would launch “collective execution” of all prisoners. Shin has solid grounds for this belief, such as Rule 10 of Camp 14.
“Prisoners who violate the laws and regulations of the camp will be shot immediately.” Camp commandants force prisoners to watch executions, including those of their own parents. Shin was forced to watch his mother executed by hanging and his older brother killed by a three-man firing squad.
In camp schools Shin saw teachers beating students to death for no apparent reason. Students worked as slaves at such tasks as gathering human excrement in freezing conditions, with no gloves and no proper winter clothing. Their lot included heavy lifting in factories and on farms.
“Prisoners must more than fulfill the work assigned them each day,” explains Camp 14 rule number 7. “Prisoners who neglect their work quota or fail to complete it will be considered to harbor discontent and will be shot immediately.” Those were the working conditions under which Shin and thousands of other inmates labored. The death penalty also applied to dalliance between the sexes.
“Should sexual physical contact occur without prior approval, the perpetrators will be shot immediately,” explains Camp 14 rule number 8. Camp guards, however, were free to function as sexual predators. If one of their victims became pregnant, the mother and the baby were killed. For a genocidal regime infanticide is not a problem and neither is torture.
Shin Dong-hyuk bears the marks of his own torture sessions, which make for grim reading. Such suffering was part of the process in which the Marxist-Leninist regime punishes children for the sins of their parents. “Prisoners must genuinely repent of their errors,” says Camp 14 rule number 9. “Anyone who does not acknowledge his sins and instead denies them or carries a deviant opinion of them will be shot immediately.”
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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