Saying we face many political and economic problems in America—problems that appear overwhelming—seems like an understatement. But then along comes a book that puts things in perspective and reminds us how good we really have it when compared to people in certain other places in the world. Appropriately enough, I finished reading such a book just before Thanksgiving Day. The book is Escape From Camp 14, by Blaine Harden. No one in the US, no matter whether they are incarcerated or just dirt poor, is forced to dig up frozen human waste each winter with bare hands, then chop it up and spread it on fields. But it’s a fact of life in North Korea, Harden informs.
Harden is a journalist and his book is about Shin In Geun, a young man whose home from birth was one of many secret North Korean political prisoner slave labor camps. Until 2005 Shin knew virtually nothing about his own country beyond his camp’s electrified fence. And he knew nothing about the outside world—not even that there even was a Europe or United States. The young man was even surprised to hear the world is round. There are 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners such as Shin in North Korea, but Shin is unique because he is the first person born in one of these tightly guarded camps to escape North Korea. From early childhood, Shin, like the other prisoners, spent his life laboring for the state up to 12 hours a day without pay, and enjoyed a status lower than draught animals in most of the rest of the world. The abuse and the atrocious working conditions make the lives of the people in these camps short.
While the country’s communist Dear Leader, Kim Il Sung (now succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Eun) lived extravagantly in multiple luxury compounds, camp prisoners slept on concrete floors, went without medical care, and obsessively scavenged for food to supplement their dreary cabbage soup and corn starvation diet. Shin eagerly devoured insects and rats roasted on a shovel over a fire. But even foraging for extra food, like other things prisoners did in the name of survival, carried risks. Camp guards beat prisoners harshly for very minor offenses. Even hording even a few grains of rice or corn could be fatal. As a child Shin saw one of his teachers kill a small girl for just such an offense.
The entire population of North Korea has been debased by its despotic government, but what has been done to the human spirit in these camps nearly defies description. The lives of the prisoners mean so little to the authorities that, beyond providing the rudimentary literacy necessary for people to do their job, no effort is wasted on education. From an early age, children routinely experience beatings and witness executions. As a teen, Shin was taken to see his mother and brother executed. When the system is set up so the very act of survival assures that children inform on their parents, and vice versa, stable families cannot exist. In these camps men and women are chosen by guards to become a breeding pair as a reward for good behavior and are then allowed only a handful of conjugal visits each year. When children are indoctrinated to be snitches and raised without joy or love, trust and friendship do not develop. If there were justice in the world, when the North Korean state finally collapses, Kim Jon Eun and the other elites would be sentenced to labor in such camps themselves, and made to dig up frozen human waste with their bare hands. But as these things go, they will be given clean prison cells, adequate food, and provided expensive defense lawyers as they await eventual trial some years down the road.
I could go on and on with the depravity Harden describes in his book. And I could tell you about Shin’s escape and how he, and the other North Koreans who have managed to flee, still struggle years later to erase the effects of the depravity and try to fill in the emotional void that this abominable state system has left them with. But it would be much better for you to read it for yourself.
For more information:
60 Minutes–Three Generations of Punishment
Born in the Gulag: Why a North Korean Boy Sent His Own Mother to Her Death
Camps 14 and 18, North Korea: Satellite Imagery and Witness Accounts