Blaine Harden, Escape from Camp 14, London, England, Penquin Books, Ltd., copyright 2012, 205 pp, hardback, $26.95.
My two favorite apocalyptic books are 1984 by George Orwell, and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. In 1984, we are given a vision of what life would be like if the state had absolute power and the individual had none. In Atlas Shrugged, we are confronted with the logical consequences that would result if the men of the mind went on strike, leaving our political leaders and their corporate collaborators to reap the seeds of their altruistic and self-sacrificial creed without benefit of the victim’s sanction.
Of the two, I found Atlas Shrugged more compelling, because in 1984 the state was still able to maintain some level of technological advance and material sustenance, which would be impossible in a purely totalitarian society. Just like no one would be willing to work if all of their earnings were confiscated from them, likewise no one would produce beyond a subsistence level if all their freedom of action were taken from them. We would descend into a Neolithic stone age, as Ayn Rand so brilliantly portrayed in Atlas Shrugged as well as in her post-apocalyptic novelette, Anthem.
The problem with all these books, if this can even be considered a problem, is that they were works of fiction. While I am convinced that the consequences that Rand dramatically portrayed would come about if men of true ability refused any longer to be sacrificial victims, what are the chances that will ever happen? That is why Escape from Camp 14 is so powerful. This is the real life story of a man –Shin In Geun — who was born into a North Korean slave labor camp, and became the first person to not only escape from this prison, but to also escape from the larger prison which surrounds it, which is North Korea.
If you want to catch a glimpse, albeit a horrifying one, of what life is like in a place where the state is all powerful, the individual has no worth and is viewed and treated as being completely dispensable, then this is the book for you. It is absolute proof that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It destroys any sense of decency, love, compassion, familial bonds, and grinds its subjects into an existence of abject brutality, disease and early death.
With the most centrally controlled and oppressive government on Earth, North Korea is exhibit one of what happens when there is no freedom of thought and action. The economy has collapsed into a pre-industrial state, where even the tiny class of privileged elites closely aligned to the ruling family only occasionally enjoys such luxuries as running water, electricity, or central heat. Moreover, despite generous donations of food and other vital commodities from South Korea, China and the West, its government was still unable to stave off mass starvation of millions in the 1990s. One can only imagine what conditions would be like without this aid.
But along with being a glimpse into what is the horror of North Korea, it is also a story of triumph of the human spirit. It subject, Shin in Geun, was born into a slave labor camp because his parents were considered enemies of the state, or at least insufficiently loyal to its ruling elite. And according to ruling party doctrine, lack of fealty to the state is considered an inherited condition which takes three generations of slavery to exorcise. In the course of his life at Camp 14, he witnessed a six year old classmate beaten to death by his teacher, the public execution of his mother and brother, and torture which included being roasted over a coal fire at the age of 13. He was brought to the brink of starvation many times, and was forced to survive by his wits and live in a prison culture which actively promoted snitching on fellow inmates for the most minor of infractions, and being rewarded with scraps of food.
Shin was totally cut off from the outside world, which even included the North Korea which existed beyond the electrified, barbed wire boundaries of Camp 14. Like most of his inmates, he assumed all the world lived the life he did. It was all he knew until he became acquainted with an older political prisoner who once held a powerful position in government, and traveled extensively, at least within the communist world, as part of his work in service of the ruling family. When he learned of the possibilities that life had to offer outside his camp, he conspired with his new-found friend to escape from Camp 14, and executed a daring escape plan which liberated him from the camp, though his co-conspirator died in the attempt.
The odyssey that followed on how this malnourished, and nearly illiterate man managed to travel across 370 miles of North Korea in the dead of winter to escape into China (he eventually made it to the United States before moving to South Korea) is as harrowing and remarkable a tale as I have ever read in fiction. But this story actually happened.
The author of Escape from Camp 14, Blaine Harden, served as The Washington Post’s bureau chief in East Asia, and is well versed in the history and culture of North Korea’s long nightmare of political tyranny and oppression. He tells Chin’s story from a journalistic perspective, without any discernible political bias. To his credit, he lets the facts speak for themselves, and lets the reader draw his own conclusions. In the course of his narrative, he provides an excellent historical overview, and perhaps a ray of hope that eventually the dynasty that has ruled North Korea for the past 60 years is beginning to see its grasp on power weaken, and that some day this tragedy will come to an end. For the hundreds of thousands who still live in North Korea’s gulags, that day cannot come soon enough.
Lance Lamberton is the founder and chairman of the Cobb Taxpayers Association, which works to reduce taxes and government spending in Cobb County Georgia, a major suburb of Atlanta. He served as the Deputy Director of the White House Office of Policy Information during President Reagan’s first term.