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.

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.”

Coffee Prince

Why didn’t I watch Coffee Prince before this month? What an amazing story. In short: a man falls in love with someone he thinks is a man and struggles with his feelings.

I’ve finished episode nine (there are 17 episodes) and I have to force myself to not watch the next episode because if I watch it, I’m going to be up all night finishing the series.

I’m finding this series painfully beautiful.

This scene (more upbeat than painfully beautiful) is from episode four, and the Wannadies song “You and Me” fits the fountain scene perfectly.

Boys Before Color

After a phone conversation last night I said to Good Man, “I need to study Korean more so I can talk to your mother more easily. Or…maybe your mother should watch Boys Before Flowers. Then we could talk about the hot Orange Haired Guy.”

***
Several weeks ago, Good Man came to school to help chaperon a field trip. Of course he ended up meeting several coworkers and was seen by even more. After he’d left, more than one coworker told me, “He’s cute! Wow, he’s way cuter than I thought he’d be, for an Asian guy!”

How am I supposed to take that? Scratch that. I know how I take it. The better question is how am I supposed to answer that?

A few weeks ago I was talking about various Korean celebrities with high school senior from taekwondo class. She has a Korean mother and a white American military father. She meant it as a compliment when she said to me, “Yeah, you have yellow fever!”

Based on my reaction, I don’t think she’ll risk saying that to anyone ever again, compliment or not.

***
Then there are those things I’m not supposed to admit. Those things related to being in an interracial, intercultural, international relationship.

I start posts about them. I keep them in draft mode, because I fear I’ll be misunderstood.

I can only say that one of the best thing about being in this particular interracial, intercultural, international relationship is the ways that we’re not the same. The ways that he is a 황인 한국 남자 and I am a 백인 미국 여자.

MacGyver Makes His Heart Beat

A few weeks ago, Good Man cut his hand. He asked if we had some gauze, but before I could answer he said, “I will use this!” He reached into a kitchen drawer for a flour sack cloth and starting humming a song. “I am like MacGyver!” he said happily.

“Is that what that song is?”

Good Man’s jaw dropped. “You! You—you must know MacGyver! It is the greatest show ever! He makes all of these gadgets! It’s like Inspector Gadget and C.S.I. put together!”

Good Man adores the word “gadget.” He uses it far more than an average American would.

“I watched Inspector Gadget,” I said. I started singing. “Doo doo doo doo doo, Inspector Gadget…”

“I know, I did too, and in Korea the man who was MacGyver’s voice was also the Inspector’s voice, but you must watch MacGyver! It is—I can’t believe you never watched it! Are you American or am I?”

Before I could decide what my television viewing habits might say about my nationality, Good Man ran into the computer room to find MacGyver online. He started watching an episode (with a really racist anti-Asian opening scene).

After a few minutes he turned around and said, very passionately, “It’s like…I am almost going to cry. My heart,” his hand fluttered up to his chest, “is beating again.”