LONDON (Reuters) - “Escape From Camp 14” makes for grim reading. Journalist Blaine Harden’s account of a young man’s life in and escape from a labor camp in secretive North Korea has drawn parallels with the Soviet gulags and Nazi Holocaust.
One big difference is that North Korea’s political prison camps, holding an estimated 200,000 people and handing out their own brand of extreme cruelty, are still operating.
The story of Shin Dong-hyuk combines a thrilling and unique tale of escape with a harrowing memoir of Camp 14, which lies to the northeast of the capital Pyongyang.
Shin is the only person born and raised in a North Korean labor camp known to have got away, meaning his harrowing recollections of abuse, hunger, torture, beatings and execution are seen as particularly valuable.
While the political debate focuses mainly on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the public perception of the ruling dynasty in Pyongyang is often one of half-crazed, isolated leaders comically prone to delusions of world domination.
“The reader should come away with this feeling in their stomach,” Harden said in a telephone interview from the United States. “There’s nothing funny at all going on there.
“This book is a good way of understanding North Korea as a totalitarian state and redressing a real failure in Western diplomacy to make these camps and that hideous cruelty part of any conversation with the country,” he added.
“It’s not a policy book, though, it’s a story, and the idea is to use it to get into people’s hearts so they never forget about Shin and understand what’s going on in North Korea.”
Shin, born Shin In Geun, was born in 1982 in Camp 14. Holding some 15,000 prisoners, it is believed to be the toughest of six labor camps thought to exist in North Korea, although their existence is denied by the authorities.
His “crime”? Being the son of a man whose brothers fled North Korea. Many inmates of Camp 14 were paying for another’s “sins”, as the ruling dynasty crushed perceived political enemies in order to maintain its grip over society.
At school, where children were groomed for a life of hard labor in coal mines or textile factories, they were told to work hard to “wash away the sins of your mothers and fathers!”
Shin’s first memory at the age of four was witnessing an execution. He stole food from his mother and supplemented his diet by eating off the floor and catching and roasting rats.
When he was seven he looked on as a classmate was beaten virtually to death by a teacher using a wooden stick for stealing five kernels of corn. She died later the same day.
With only the camp’s value system to go by, Shin was neither angry nor sad, believing the punishment to be just and fair.
Even more shockingly, he “snitched” on his mother and brother who were planning to escape, and at his mother’s execution remembered feeling only anger towards her.
As he saw it, he had been tortured and nearly died as a result of her “foolish, self-centered scheming”.
Shin’s view of life began to change when he met Kim Jin Myung, a man of around 50 who nursed him back to health while the two shared a cell.
“Uncle” would also comfort him with stories, which had to be whispered, of the wonderful foods he had eaten outside the camp.
Shin was overwhelmed by the kindness shown him and the concept of life outside the fence. A sense of expectation and hope grew when he befriended Park Yong Chul, a prisoner who had lived abroad who opened up a new world.
It was with Park that Shin hatched his escape in 2005, although his friend only made it as far as the fence where he was electrocuted.
For Harden, fully corroborating Shin’s story was impossible — North Korea is a closed country, and the labor camps are officially taboo. But he is confident the account is true.
Shin’s wounds — a scar from a hook and burns on the back during torture, for example — are consistent with his story.
“It beggars the imagination to think that someone would do that to himself to corroborate a fictional story,” Harden said.
He has also spoken to other camp survivors who found his account “completely believable”.
Detailed satellite images of North Korea point to the existence of the camps, and Shin was able to identify where certain events, including his escape, took place.
“It’s not completely satisfactory, but until they open the camps, this is the best that can be done,” the author said.
Harden noted that Shin initially lied about betraying his mother. When he arrived in South Korea after making his way across North Korea and China, he claimed he had known nothing of her plan to escape but that she was caught nonetheless.
A few years later, after Shin began to learn the concepts of right, wrong, honesty, truth and guilt, he came clean.
“The guilt has built as he has entered what we know to be the normal world, and it’s been tough for him with what he calls the process of becoming a human being,” Harden explained.
Adding to the guilt from the death of his mother and brother, Shin also lives with the knowledge that his father was almost certainly tortured and killed as a result of his actions.
* Escape From Camp 14 is published by the Viking imprint of the Penguin Group in the United States.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato