Escape From Camp 14

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.

My New Method for Choosing Korean Dramas

“Why? Why? In every Korean drama the man is an ass to the woman and tells her ‘가.’ And then they get married. If this cross-dresser marries him instead of the Red Messenger, I’m off of Korean dramas!” I yelled, punctuating the air with my embroidery scissors.

Good Man sighed and shook his head, “It would be so wonderful if my wife was off Korean dramas.”

***

“어머,” I said, “나쁜 남자를 좋아해요.” Mother, I like bad boys.

Mother’s eyes grew very wide. Now I know where Good Man gets his “huh? what?” look from. “뭐?”

“한국 드라마에서, 긴 머리가락 있으면 좋아해요. 일본어 말하면 좋아해요.” In Korean dramas, if the man has long hair, I like him. If he speaks Japanese, I like him.

Mother nodded and laughed.

***

If a Korean drama has cross-dressing and/or a gay theme of some sort, I’m apparently all over it. For example, everyone else adores Kim Sam Soon, but I really liked Coffee Prince much better.

I just finished Sungkyunkwan Scandal and thoroughly enjoyed it. The cross-dressing and the inevitable man falling in love with the cross-dresser was a joy, but it was the gifted girl theme that really drew me in.

Beyond that, today I realized that I’ve watched five dramas. In those five dramas…

* Boys Before Flowers included a head maid, played by 김영옥. She was also Han Gyul’s grandmother in Coffee Prince.
* 김자옥 was Han Gyul’s mother and also Sam Soon’s mother in My Name is Kim Sam Soon.
* 김창완, the former shop owner in Coffee Prince was also in Queen of the Housewives.
* The daughter in Queen, 방준서 played the younger version of the gifted cross-dressing scholar in Sungkyunkwan Scandal.

I’m sure I’m missing some actors.

As such, my new method for choosing dramas is going to be to only watch dramas that include at least one person I’ve already seen before.

I put Bad Boy/Guy on my watch list because of 김재욱. He’s the long-haired (relatively speaking) Japanese-speaking prince.

I found another cross-dressing drama today (Painter of the Wind) which includes 이인, who was in Sungkyunkwan Scandal.

김창완 also shows up again in another one on my list, Bad Love.

Personal Taste is another one on my list. It’s a heavy-hitter, featuring multiple actors I’ve seen before (or will see, if I watch Painter or Bad Boy first).

I’m not sure why I’m on such a K-Drama kick lately. I can think of one strong factor: the shows have a definite end. I’m tired of good shows getting canceled before the story is finished (Life?) and tired old shows dragging on until you wish all the characters would get knocked out at once (Grey’s). At least when I watch K-Dramas, I know the story is going to end like it was supposed to.

Learning to Read: Learning to Feel

(한국어 공책)

I wonder, from time to time, why I bother with Korean. I know enough Korean to deal with my in-laws. I can hold my own in Korea. Anything complicated, Good Man or his family would handle (or Master, if need be). I don’t intend to study in Korea. I don’t want to become famous there. So why do I bother to continue my Korean studies? Why not plateau out where I am right now?

And then I pick up one more book written in Korean…

One of the joys of reading in Korean is that it forces me to slow down and enjoy a book.

One of the pains of reading in Korean is that it forces me to slow down and understand a book.

***

Months ago, I ended up finding an article about a North Korean who was born into Camp 14. His North Korean name was Shin In-kun, but in South Korea he goes by Shin Dong-hyuk. He lived in the camp his entire life until he escaped.

(Some people don’t believe his story and say it’s impossible that he escaped from the entirely controlled zone of Camp 14. I know memoirs tell the author’s truth. I also know that terrible things are happening in North Korea, and nobody wanted to believe the atrocities that Nazi Germany was carrying out were true when they came to light.)

He wrote a book about his experiences in Camp 14, but it’s only available in Korean (세상 밖으로 나오다). I asked Sister to buy it for me and she did, reading it herself before she sent it to me. Sister wrote on the note she sent:

그리고 2시간만에 다 읽었어요… 읽는 내내 답답하고 화나고.. 그랬어요. 휴~

And I read the entire book in only two hours. The whole time I was sorrowful and angry. Well… sigh…

I put the book aside for a few months. I was working on my million characters goal, and that was all about extensive reading. I was reading for pleasure, not worrying about what I couldn’t understand.

I feared I wouldn’t be able to understand the language, and I worried that it would be too hard. I picked up the book about two weeks ago, and I gathered my mini flashcards on a ring (also sent by Sister in the same package), prepared to make a lot of flashcards. I was ready to do a slow, intensive reading so that I wouldn’t miss anything. I wanted to give Shin the respect I suspected his work would deserve.

The chapters in the book are very short, and it’s illustrated in Shin’s own hand. The great thing about short chapters is that I’m not overwhelmed by a huge block of text, and I can pick up the book, read it for just a few minutes, and end at a good stopping place.

The book is just about perfect for my reading level. The words I don’t understand are almost always either North Korean (with South Korean equivalents given parenthetically) or political words specific to North Korea that even Good Man doesn’t know. I can mostly figure those out by context. I’m sure I don’t get all of the details, but I get far more than I was expecting.

So I haven’t made a single flashcard. I haven’t needed to. Even so, I’ve only been reading this book for twenty or thirty minutes a day. It’s intensive reading, but not in the way I expected.

When I read in English, images flash into my head quickly. The pace of my reading makes it necessary to shake the image away quickly. By the time the image has been created, I’m already halfway through the next sentence.

But when I read this in Korean, the image builds itself piece by piece. Slowly.

When the image fills in, I exhale deliberately, close my eyes, and hold the picture in my mind. I’ve read about these things in English. I know these things happen.

But reading the words in Korean, by a Korean, held as a prisoner in North Korea? It’s much more powerful. The image lingers. I can’t shake it away. I can’t ignore it.

농촌지원을 나가면 쥐를 많이 잡을 수 있어서 일주일 내내 쥐를 잡아먹은 적도 있다. 쥐가 보이지 않으면 한 달에 한 번도 못 먹은 적도 있다.

쥐를 잡으면 그 자리에서 바로 먹지 않고 학교로 가져와서 “화구”에 구워먹는다. 작업이 끝난 후 친구들끼리 모여 잡아온 쥐를 꺼내 놓고 함께 먹는다. 친한 친구들끼리 모여서 먹는데, 쥐 잡아먹는다고 나무라지는 않는다. 여름에는 나뭇가지를 모아서 굽기도 하고, 작업반 내 불 피워놓은 곳에서 구워먹기도 한다.

화장실에도 쥐가 많은데, 화장실에 있는 쥐를 잡아먹기도 한다. 쥐가 관리소에서 많이 걸리는 병인 “비라그라”(펠라그라)에 좋다고 한다. 오히려 뱀보다 쥐가 영양가가 많다.

If you went into the fields, there were many rats, so sometimes we were able to eat a rat every day of the week. Sometimes, we didn’t see many rats and we went a whole month without eating one.

When we caught rats we didn’t sit down and eat them right away. We went to the school and roasted them over a fire. When labor ended we shared the rat with our friends. Good friends gathered together and didn’t get punished just for eating rats. In the summer we made a fire of twigs and the labor group met in that location to roast the rat.

There were many rats at the bathroom, so sometimes you could grab rats there. At the political camp, rats were a good way to treat pellagra. Rats had more nutritional value than snakes.

Note to Korean Drama Watchers

Dear Korean Drama Watchers From That Knitting Site I Spend Too Much Time On:

Korean men are not like the ones on TV. The same is true in your home country, in case you didn’t notice.

Korean women are not like the ones on TV. The same is true in your home country, in case you didn’t notice.

If you don’t know 한글, you can not even begin to claim that you “know Korean.”

My Brain is Mushy

Today I finished reading Little House in the Big Woods in Korean. I have spent much too much time on this book and in a wild two days I basically read through one-quarter. Today I read 56 pages of the book (including a chapter on threshing machines, which was way over my head), which works out to be over 20,000 characters.

뇌가 말랑말랑해요. My brain is mushy. ㅋㅋㅋ

On an unrelated note, when you’re driving home at 1 am and trying to stay awake, blasting 땡땡땡 works.

Cheesy

“Oh, I love this song!” I say, turning up the radio. I sing along.

You make it easy,
as easy as one, two, (one, two, three, four)
There’s only one thing t[w]o do, three words fo[u]r you~
I love you!

“See? It’s a play on words! We must play it at the wedding!”

Good Man stares at me. “But isn’t that sort of…cheesy?

“Which is exactly why we need to play it at the wedding!”

Snow Day

YouTube seems to be running really slowly right now, so I hope these will eventually embed!

Thank you, Eric Herman. Eric Herman also did “The Elephant Song,” which was popular with all of my students, 3-6 in Korea.

Haiku

korean music
you go girl so hot tell me
moth flame death come quick

You Go Girl*

So Hot

Tell Me

* Yes, her new CD appears to be named It’s Hyorish. Indeed.

He Likes It

My students listen to music a lot in class. I like the background noise, and often, they do too. I always ask them first, “Do you want music?”

“Yeah!”

Lately we’ve been listening to a Korean CD I have. I dig listening to non-English language music because we (read: I) don’t have to worry about the lyrics. The kids always whine about the music being in a foreign language a bit at first, but then they come around.

A few days ago, one student said, “What is ‘sarang?’ All of the songs have it.”

“Just like in America,” I answered, “songs are often about ‘love.'”

“Ohhhh…”

Today a song came on and a student piped up, “Turn it up! I like this song, it’s my favorite.”

“But you don’t know what they’re saying,” another student said.

He nodded, “I like the way it sounds, though.”

His Favorite

My Second Favorite

Why I Don’t Teach Lower Elementary

I had to cover someone’s morning duty so I could leave early this afternoon to go to the foot doctor re: my broken toe. My job was to watch all of the second through sixth graders in the gym with the PE teacher.

A second grade student who didn’t know my name walked up to me. “Ms! Ms…um…?” I said my name and nodded for her to continue, “He told another boy that I like him!”

Oh please. Shoot me now. “Do you?” I asked as sweetly as I could.

“No.”

“Then he’s being stupid. Go sit down.”

Her eyes turned into saucers and she gave me a “that’s it?” look and ran off.

***

So I went to the foot doctor and the foot doctor said that my fracture is actually worse than it was three weeks ago! How is that possible? I have been wearing that dumb blue orthopedic shoe constantly!

He called for another three weeks off of taekwondo and on the shoe.

Six weeks without taekwondo. Sigh. And it’s not even like I can substitute exercise here. I’m stretching and doing pushups (from the knees) and situps, but I can’t jump rope, I can’t walk to work… Arg!

***

So my new favorite Korean song is 브라운아이즈’s 가지마 가지마 (Brown Eye’s “Don’t Go Don’t Go”). Note, this is not the official video, because the official video has some weird donkey fetishization in it.

I can’t stop singing, “가지마~ 가지마~ 가지마~!” Kajima, kajima, kajima!