Read and deemed disturbing – Escape from Camp 14

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A few months ago I read an article in The Guardian picturing the journey of Shin In Geun, a man who was born in one of North Korea’s prison camps. Unfortunately, the text is no longer available. Since it was an excerpt from the book „Escape from Camp 14“ (Authorat Amazon) I decided the book was worth a read and got the sample to my Kindle. Lately, after finishing „Der Junge, der Träume schenkte“ I was in the mood for some non-fictional book and came around to read „Escape from Camp 14“.

If you wonder how one can be born inside a prison camp, the answer is „reward marriage“:

„A reward marriage was the only safe way around the no-sex rule. Marriage was dangled in front of prisoners as the ultimate bonus for hard work and reliable snitching.“

While the whole story is kind of disturbing, there are some interesting aspects. Shin – and all the other kids born inside the camp – was raised in an environment of constant lack of pretty much anything, especially food. Since he wasn’t a child of love but more of the circumstances, he didn’t feel love for his mother either – at least not in the camp. He considered her as a competitor for the scarce resource food.

„Still [despite being beaten; note from the author], Shin took as much food as he could from his mother as often as he could. It did not occur to him that if he ate her lunch she would go hungry. Many years later, [..] he would tell me that he loved his mother. But that was in retrospect. That was after he learned that a civilized child should love his mother. When he was in the camp – depending on her for all meals, stealing her food, enduring her beatings – he saw her a competition for survival.“

But since he didn’t know it any other way, he had no expectations. In the first 20 years of his life he neither intended to escape from the camp nor – as many prisoners that knew the outside world would try – to kill himself.

„And so Shin’s misery never skidded into complete hopelessness. He had no hope to lose, no past to mourn, no pride to defend. He did not find it degrading to lick soup off the floor. He was not ashamed to beg a guard for forgiveness. It didn’t trouble his conscience to betray a friend for food. These were merely survival skills, not motives for suicide.“

So why did he escape then? It was another prisoner, Park Yong Chul, and his stories about all the different kinds of food that were available outside the camp (or better: outside North Korea). Shin became „addicted“ to Park’s tales and subsequently convinced Park to risk an escape.

Although one knows how the plan worked out from the beginning, the book is fascinating. It gives a detailed (well, as detailed as it gets) insight not only into the prison camps but North Korea and its relation to South in general. The 250 pages of this book are definitely worth reading and I can only recommend it – at least, if you’re not too sensitive when it comes to reports about prison camps in which people are punished for having the wrong relatives.

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