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Born guilty: child of a North Korean gulag

by Bradley K. Martin

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden. Viking, 2012, 224 pp., $26.95 (hardcover)

While reading “Escape from Camp 14,” be prepared for horrifying passages that plumb the depths of viciousness to which both the jailed and their jailers in North Korea’s political prison camps descend.

Bred for a lifetime of slave labor by prison camp guards who had rewarded his lifer parents’ good behavior by matching them up for marriage, a 13-year-old boy overhears his mother and his older brother plotting to flee. He immediately rats them out. Required to attend their execution, he refuses to meet his mother’s gaze.

A teacher — angered that the boy has snitched not to the teacher but to a guard, thus depriving the teacher of career points with the prison bureaucracy — enlists the whole class in a months-long campaign to beat the boy bloody and starve him.

Unlike ordinary schools whose graduates, in order to function in society, must learn to worship the Kim-family dictators, schools in North Korean labor camps for political prisoners don’t consider pupils “important enough for brainwashing,” author Blaine Harden writes.

Prisoner Shin Dong Hyuk “had been schooled to inform on his family and his classmates. He won food as a reward and joined guards in beating up children he betrayed. His classmates, in turn, tattled on him and beat him up.”

After hearing older prisoners who had been born outside reminisce about grilled meat and other tasty foods they recalled eating, Shin at age 23 musters the gumption to become the first escapee among prisoners born in the gulag.

Probably having guaranteed his father’s torture if not death by visiting him the night before, Shin, on Page 117, crawls through the camp’s electrified fence. He uses the smoldering body of his would-be escape partner as insulation, thus avoiding his own electrocution.

In terms of dramatic intensity that’s the climactic moment of the book, but it begins a 74-page journey through North Korea, China and South Korea to several cities in the United States.

We see the newly free Shin struggling — sometimes more, sometimes less than other defectors and refugees — with culture shock, a profound sense of worthlessness and feelings of guilt over those whom he’s betrayed or otherwise left behind.

Shin’s story is a powerful and important one. To my mind, though, there’s not enough of it here to it to warrant a 200-page book. The material might better have been presented in a long magazine article.

Harden frequently interrupts the tale with multipage passages of background exposition. These seldom add much that’s new. If the idea is to have the volume double as a compact overall introduction to North Korea, there are better books for that purpose.

Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” is one. Rather than forcing one taciturn subject to carry the whole burden, as Harden does here, Demick tells the stories of six former North Koreans.

“Escape from Camp 14″ also raises a number of questions that it doesn’t try to answer. Shin’s account in quite a few places, for this reader, doesn’t compute.

Just one example: Why does Shin, after having shunned his father for months, visit him? We are not told — even though we already know of Shin’s own experience that would have warned him his father will be suspected of complicity in his escape the next day and will be tortured.

The author tells the story in third-person narration, permitting Shin relatively few direct quotations. Nor are we treated to much of the poetic writing that made me sit up and take notice of Harden more than two decades ago when he was reporting from Africa for the Washington Post. (I compared him to Joseph Conrad.)

Shin finally finds his own voice, but too late to impact the book much. Listening to him speak at a Seattle suburban church just before they wrap up their collaboration astonishes Harden, as the author writes in an eloquent paragraph that explains much and makes me wonder what might have been:

“Compared to the diffident, incoherent speaker I had seen six months earlier … he was unrecognizable. He had harnessed his self-loathing and used it to indict the state that had poisoned his heart and killed his family.”

Bradley K. Martin is the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.”