Eugenia Collier’s short story “Marigolds,” she writes poetically about the “undirected
restlessness of the zoo-bred flamingo who knows that nature created him to fly
free.” In many ways, Shin Dong-Hyuk, the subject of Blain Harden’s moving and
heartbreaking biography Escape from Camp
14, is exactly that flamingo -- a creature doomed by circumstances out of
his control to be a lifelong prisoner, both literal and metaphorical, yet with
a powerful desire to be free.
Though many accounts of life in North Korea’s gulags have been written, such as Kang Chol-Hwan’s well-known work The Aquariums of Pyongyang, few have dealt with the children who are actually born into these prisons. This is as a result of the simple fact that none except for Shin Dong-Hyuk has actually managed to escape. In fact, Harden expresses surprise throughout the book that Shin is not more celebrated or recognized in South Korea for this feat; instead, he is treated as just another one of a growing number of North Korean refugees that has braved unimaginable hazards and risks to make it to the theoretical safety of South Korea. However, there is a significant difference between Shin and every other escapee from North Korea: he had no idea at all that there was a world outside of North Korea.
Harden’s book is remarkable in the way that it charts the growth of Shin, from a child born to prisoners, to a young, angry student, to a skillful survivor, to a disaffected adult, and, finally, to an activist. Shin’s life before his escape is one predicated solely on the desire and need to survive. Perhaps the saddest thing about his story, however, is that he is rarely even sure why he is trying to survive; as Harden indicates, despite the fact that Shin went to school, his teachers “said nothing about North Korea’s geography, its neighbors, its history, or its leaders. Shin had only a vague notion of who the Great Leader and Dear Leader were.” This, for those who have read other books about North Korea, runs as a contradiction to the image of most North Koreans as slavish devotees of the Kim dynasty. Shin’s fate was that he did not have a fate -- indeed, Harden notes that “primary and secondary school trained them for hard labor” and nothing more.
The most difficult chapters to digest in terms of human connection are those that relate to Shin’s family. His parents conceived Shin and his brother in the camp, and Shin’s mother was a “reward” for Shin’s father for doing “good” work in the camp. As a result, there is no love to be found in Shin’s immediate family, and each member is concerned only with their own selfish impulses and desire to survive. At one point, Shin eventually reveals to Harden that he was “more faithful to the guards than to my family.” Shin initially tells Harden that he witnessed his mother and brother’s execution and merely felt relief that he was not the one being killed. However, Shin later reveals that he was far more culpable in his mother and brother’s death than he initially led Harden to believe. Harden builds this reveal from the opening pages, but does not reveal the truth until much later in the book, at which point Shin indicates he initially lied to Harden because he “was terrified of the backlash, of people asking … are you even human?’”
Shin feels a compelling desire to be free. He meets several people from “the
outside world,” such as a fellow prisoner that used to travel outside of the
country. This stirs within Shin a desire to escape, and Harden communicates
these desires clearly and powerfully to the reader. The longing to be free is a
recognizable and powerful one, even when stated simply. Perhaps the most
compelling line in these chapters is this one: “Freedom, in Shin’s mind, was
just another word for grilled meat.” The association between food and freedom
is one that is repeated throughout the book, especially once Shin escapes.
Harden recounts Shin’s initial breakout and journey with tension and bravado. When Shin finally finds enough food to survive it is treated like the most sacred of moments. When Shin finally makes it across the border to China, his life becomes a nomadic one for several years. It is here that Harden’s narrative skills at times lose some steam. We leap over Shin’s journey from China to South Korea, with few stops to truly detail Shin’s slow understanding of the outside world. The most intriguing moments following Shin’s escape come when he learns something about the outside world, but these are too often glossed over to be truly impactful. Harden notes that when Shin gets out of the camp he is “shocked…to see North Koreans going about their daily lives without having to take orders from guards” and that “they had the temerity to laugh in the streets or wear brightly colored clothes.” To truly dig into these moments would add weight to the contrast between the well-documented moments of Shin’s life inside the camps as opposed to how strange the outside world is to him.
Still, the later chapters do present an intriguing side of Shin: disaffected adult. Shin eventually makes it to the United States, where for years he has no motivation to do anything except eat and sleep. This restlessness and confusion about what to do with so much freedom is the side of the story for survivors from North Korea that is rarely presented -- that once the hunger for freedom is finally satiated, many have no idea what to do with the leftovers.
Noah Cho teaches English at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, California.