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One that got away

21 April 2012

11:00 AM

21 April 2012

11:00 AM

Escape from Camp 14 Blaine Harden

Mantle, pp.256, 16.99

There are six drawings in the back of this book. They’re not very good drawings. In fact they look as if they come from an unusually hamfisted comic strip. However, it’s their crudity that makes them so powerful. One shows a young boy being suspended over a coal fire, a rope round his wrists, a chain round his ankles and a hook through his abdomen.

The boy is Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born in a North Korean labour camp ever to have escaped from one. Shin’s first memory is of being taken to see an execution aged four. He watched a man having his mouth stuffed full of pebbles in case he tried to shout out anything unpatriotic, and then shot.

The fact that Shin was born at all was due to the camp guards, who randomly paired off male and female prisoners to provide new slaves for the workforce. At the same time Rule Eight of the camp rules declared that ‘should sexual physical contact occur without prior approval, the perpetrators will be shot immediately’.


There were ten camp rules in total — eight of which contained the phrase ‘shot immediately’. Another of Shin’s early memories is of seeing his mother having sex with one of the guards. All the guards had sex with any female prisoners they chose — if the women became pregnant, they too were shot immediately.

An estimated 150,000 people are presently being held in North Korean camps. There, they work for 15 hours a day — usually in coal mines or factories — often until they die of malnutrition or exhaustion. One of the camps is 31 miles long and 25 miles wide — that’s an area larger than the city of Los Angeles. Yet scarcely any newspapers cover the story and no Hollywood film star has clambered onto a soapbox to protest. Nobody, it seems, wants to know.

When he was 14, Shin watched another execution. Now it was his mother and older brother who were being shot — for attempting to escape. As his mother was being tied to the stake, she tried to catch her son’s eye. He looked away. Shin, it turns out, had betrayed them to a camp guard, hoping for a reward. In fact, he was banged up in solitary confinement for six months.

In 2005, Shin, by then aged 23, decided that he too was going to make a break for it. With his only friend, he crawled through the high-voltage fence that surrounded the camp. His friend touched the wire and died instantly. However, his body earthed the current, allowing Shin to escape. In temperatures of ten degrees below zero, he walked, swam and jumped trucks to reach the Chinese border 370 miles away.

It’s not just the drawings at the back of Escape from Camp 14 that aren’t very good. In a lot of respects the book is not up to much either: it’s clunky, baldly written and repetitive. When Blaine Harden’s prose isn’t being bald, you rather wish it was. Certainly there seems something very wrong about calling a radio ‘an electric dream-machine’, and I’m not at all sure about a description of the ruling elite’s houses in North Korea as standing out ‘like sable-clad thumbs in the mangy landscape’. But here again, it’s the crudity with which the book is written that helps give it such an unforgettable thump.

Shin now lives in southern California. As he says of himself, ‘I am evolving from being an animal. But it is going very, very slowly. Sometimes I try to laugh and cry like other people . . . Yet tears don’t come. Laughter doesn’t come.’


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