Apr. 17th, 2016

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It's nearly impossible, and you'll probably get burnt.

Book #7: Escape from Camp 14
Author: Blaine Harden
Provenance: Listened to the audiobook from Audible

There's a definite draw to reading books about North Korea, if only because trying to understand the scope of the horrors that people can manage to perpetrate on each other is inherently interesting and valuable. And possibly more than anywhere on the planet over the past few decades, that's been the role of North Korea: to show how badly a society can misshape itself in hard, uncaring, terrible ways. I've read a few books about the place over the past few years, fiction and non-fiction, and I doubt I'm done with this one. This wasn't the best, but it's an interesting addition.

Escape from Camp 14 gives you exactly what it says on the cover: it's the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who was born to parents in a prison camp for political prisoners. You see, the policy is that you punish political prisoners for generations, so people are born, grow up, live their whole lives, and then die in these camps. Camp 14 is a particularly bad one. The book details Shin's life growing up there, his weak relationships with his parents, his attitude towards the authorities and other prisoners, the brutalities and torture he suffered, and then eventually, his escape from the camp, his circuitous route to South Korea and then to the US, and his struggles to adjust to life outside.

My feeling when going through the book (and I listened to the audiobook here, read by Blaine Harden, the author) was that Harden decided for the most part to leave the prose unadorned and journalistic, and let the power and brutality of Shin's biography just carry the reader through. But I don't really think this was the most effective choice; the horror of the situation is perhaps unchanged by it, but it does feel like you're at more of a remove from Shin's tale than I'd have expected. Some parts are just glossed by, which may be just the amount of detail Harden could get, but I feel like the story could have been more affecting, given the core material.

That said, like, it is still really powerful as is. Some of it is the terrible stuff that, somehow, I end up expecting - the lack of food, the killing of one of his fellow students by a teacher for a trivial offense, the generalized amorality among the prisoners at the camp, who are trained to basically value none of their relationships and confess everything immediately. But much of it is still surprising, too - what ends up happening to Shin's mother and brother, for instance. Or why he wants to escape the camp; he's not motivated by a desire for freedom. Or the nature of some of the working conditions in the camp. Or how once Shin is out and in South Korea, he's different from the other North Koreans and tries to avoid them. He's not been indoctrinated to the Kim family mystique, because why bother? And his attitude towards life and personal relationships and how hard it's been to change was also really enlightening.

I do really feel like this is an important book, and I hope many people hear about his story. It's horrifying how widespread this is in the country, and how little we are doing to change it, even if I don't have a great suggestion about what we could do to bring about change. I think it could have been somewhat better presented, but Shin's life story is gripping enough that it doesn't lose too much. Just don't come to this one with happy thoughts. They won't last too long.

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