That was until the death of ‘supreme leader’ Kim Jong-il in December 2011 trained the focus of the mainstream media back on one of the planet’s most isolated nations, before petering out as the new year, the US Presidential election, and other glamorous events took centrestage in headlines.
As this remarkable book makes clear, that is the unfortunate case with most people around the globe. And it’s this kind of wilful ignorance that leads to the terrifying experiences that people like Shin Dog-hyuk, the protagonist of the story in the book, recount. The only human known to have escaped alive from Camp 14, one of the five political prisons in North Korea, the 26 year-old, referred to as Shin throughout the book, tells an incredible tale of a secret nation that quells any form of dissent with death, or worse, the kind of physical brutality that makes you want to put the book away.
Page after gripping page of this memoir introduces you to life in a North Korean prison camp — the undeniable existence of which is confirmed by a simple search on Google Earth, says the authors. Shin, doomed to live a life worse than death in Camp 14 as penance for his father’s brothers’ perceived crimes, worked 12 to 15 hours a day stitching military uniforms, performing back breaking construction tasks, foraging for food and settling for rats. He also has his middle finger hacked off as punishment, and then dips it into cabbage soup to save the stump from getting infected.
We learn how, in a perverse subversion of all natural human emotion, prisoners are taught to snitch on each other, including their parents, ignore deaths due to indiscriminate violence or forced liaisons between female prisoners and lecherous guards that result in pregnancies, and where ‘forgiveness’ means ‘to beg not to be punished’. Here, hunger is so overpowering that rice becomes a delicacy, and greed to eat some is what eventually leads to Shin snitching on his mother and brother and despising them even as they are executed before his eyes.
Written in a straightforward, even deadpan manner, the book’s journalistic style seems to be in deliberate opposition to the painful, almost fantastic quality of life that these unfortunate people live. Escape from Camp 14 is not a happy book. It depresses, shocks and sometimes even amazes you by the sheer force of its narrator’s unpleasant truth. But it is a book that must be read and shared with friends so that you read and care about North Korea more often than when its almost-mythical dictator dies once in 20 years.