May 5, 2012

Ten Commandments of Camp 14

The following book review of Blaine Harden's 'Escape from Camp 14' was originally published in The Indian Express on March 5, 2012. 

Barely 200 kilometres from the ultramodern Seoul high-rise where I write this is North Korea’s Camp 14, where some 15,000 inmates are literally worked to death, forced to witness periodic executions, subjected to beatings, rape, disfigurement and torture, and compelled to consume rats to avoid protein deficiencies and their own vomit to combat hunger. Such gruesome details about life in North Korea’s unacknowledged labour camps are what emerge from Escape from Camp 14, an account by former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden, based on his interviews with Shin Dong-hyuk, the first North Korean born and raised in the camp to have escaped abroad.

The squalor and wanton brutality of life in the North Korean political prisons are certainly shocking. Prisoners are rarely issued clothes and provided no water for cleaning, reeking at times “like farm animals”. Many inmates are guilty only by association, as the parents, siblings and children of those feared by the state. (Great Leader Kim Il-Sung decreed that “enemies of class… their seed must be eliminated through three generations.”) Rape by guards is commonplace, and any resulting pregnancies mean death for both mother and child. And then there’s the torture and physical punishment. In 1989, at the age of six, Shin watched a teacher beat a female classmate to death with a wooden pointer for having “stolen” five kernels of corn. Shin himself had a finger chopped off for dropping a sewing machine.

There are evident parallels between Shin’s story — retold by Harden in plain, unvarnished prose — and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Elie Wiesel’s Night, the defining, first-hand accounts of Soviet gulags and Nazi extermination camps. But the book also recalls aspects of Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies. Prisoners live by 10 rules committed to memory, most of which contain the sub-clause that violators “will be shot immediately”. And incentives are given for inmates to inform on one another. Shin, for example, provided the information that resulted in the executions of his mother and brother.

Indeed, what makes Escape from Camp 14 much more than simply a long-overdue expos√© of North Korea’s prison camps is the amorality of its protagonist. Despite having resided in South Korea and the United States in the years since his 2005 escape, Shin remains unfamiliar with such notions as compassion or forgiveness, although he acknowledges guilt. In his original memoir — published in 2007 in Korean to little fanfare — Shin overlooked the fact that he was responsible for the deaths of his family members, revealing it to Harden only in a later interview.

At least 26 defectors have experienced the labour camps, including some as guards, and this has allowed Harden to corroborate aspects of Shin’s story pertaining to the general condition of prisoners. But unlike any of the others, Shin’s tale is distinguished by the fact that he alone, having been born in the camp, knew of no alternative life and, as such, had no expectations. “He had no hope to lose, no past to mourn, no pride to defend,” Harden writes. Even when Shin’s physical and psychological conditions hit bottom, he never contemplated suicide, a form of escape that was also discouraged by the threat of collective punishment meted out to surviving relatives. The complete isolation of the camps is best revealed when Shin says that he had only a vague notion of who North Korea’s leaders were, and had not even heard of Pyongyang — let alone South Korea, China or the United States — until he turned 20.

Harden performs the service of interspersing, throughout Shin’s account, details of life outside the labour camps. The collapse of the state food distribution network in the 1990s and the cult of personality of the Kim dynasty may be well known to outsiders, but the elaborate hereditary caste system created in the 1950s by Kim Il-Sung to reward loyal families is less so. The lowest stratum, composed of family members of South Koreans, Christians, former property owners and Japanese collaborators, is unable to secure government jobs or attend university in this purportedly classless society. Harden also details the clandestine human migration networks within North Korea and the difficulties defectors face in assimilating in the South.

The tragedy is that the plight of political prisoners in North Korea has received remarkably little attention abroad. They do not feature on the agendas of any bilateral or multilateral diplomatic dialogues with Pyongyang and there is little international activism in their support. While Shin’s story reads like it was set in a far-removed past, the reality is that his experience is very much the present for some one to two lakh people.