Yesterday I took the day off of work and headed to Politics and Prose so I could see Shin Dong-hyuk and Blaine Harden speak. As I expected, I ended up in tears.
Shin is the author of 세상 밖으로 나오다, a book I wrote about reading last year. Shin is the only person known to have successfully escaped from Camp 14, a North Korean prison camp.
This month, his story was published in English as Escape From Camp 14, told by Blaine Harden. It is not a translation of Shin’s memoir. Instead it is an updated/corrected story that made me hold my breath in chapter four, and gasp at Shin’s admission in chapter five.
Escape From Camp 14
Image Courtesy of Viking
At first I was disappointed that this book wasn’t a translation of 세상 밖으로 나오다. I know from reading his Korean-language memoir that Shin’s words are extremely powerful on their own. However, crucial details in Shin’s story have changed since the publication of his memoir. Shin says:
It has been a burden to keep this inside. In the beginning, I didn’t think much of my lie. It was my intent to lie. Now the people around me make me want to be honest. They make me want to be more moral. In that sense, I felt like I need to tell the truth. (p. 47)
The truth comes in an easily readable book. Harden gives a detailed, matter-of-fact account of Shin’s life, both inside and outside of North Korea. This book is painful to read, but the details are used for education, not shock value.
Harden doesn’t limit himself to telling Shin’s story. He delivers a brief history of North Korea, and exposes how the Kim dynasty operates. He explains how a North Korean’s social/political class affects their living situation and opportunities.
Also, Harden seamlessly weaves in information gleaned from other defectors, including a former camp guard who was taught to think of prisoners as “dogs and pigs” (36).
Yet Escape From Camp 14 doesn’t come off as a dry textbook. Instead, Shin’s entire experience becomes richer and more believable because of the background Harden provides.
At Politics and Prose yesterday, Harden spoke for approximately 20 minutes, followed up by Shin (with an interpreter). Even though I knew what to expect, I had to force back tears.
When it came time for the books to be signed however, I lost all composure. I had brought 세상 with me, and I purchased a copy of Escape at the event. I pushed 세상 in front of Shin and Escape in front of Harden. I was upset, and the words tumbled out in simple Korean, through tears.
“I’m sorry, my Korean isn’t good. My sister-in-law read this, and sent it to me. I read it slowly and cried. It was hard. Now my friends can read your story in English. Thank you.”
And that, I think, is this book’s greatest accomplishment. Although Shin’s story is the central focus of Escape From Camp 14, Harden’s skilled journalism exposes the incredible broader truth about what North Korea is doing to its own people. Now that Shin’s experience is available to a larger audience, can we continue to ignore North Korea’s human rights violations?
Shin Dong-hyuk at Politics and Prose
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Viking in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. I was already familiar with Shin’s story, and immediately recognized him on the cover. I tore through the house. “Honey!” I yelled, bursting into the office, “Look what they finally published in English!”
I was not required to write a positive review and I have not been paid or otherwise compensated to promote this book. Although the links above go to Amazon, I don’t run affiliate links.
And yes, I did purchase another copy of this book at Politics and Prose! I want to support Shin’s bravery however I can, and a purchase is a small way to do that.