For When You're Feeling So Happy It's Offensive

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West - Blaine Harden


”Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, (the) Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, (the) Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney. North Koreans have no one like that.

Actually North Koreans have imgur, Dennis Rodman and Ken Jeong in Stevie Wonder glasses.

A couple of months back, Petra recommended this book to me after posting this link from imgur. I’m the least literate person I know when it comes to world politics but human depravity is always fascinating even within the harrowing context of non-fiction. And should you bother to check that link, I’m pretty certain you’d be just as compelled to make time for this book. To actually sit down and take a pause from complaining about the Starbucks barista never getting your name right or needing to charge your smartphone when it’s not even lunch time yet. 

Shin Dong-hyuk is a political prisoner born and raised in Camp 14, serving a sentence on behalf of the forefathers he’s never met. Within the concentration camp he is raised not as a person but as a cog in the Juche ideology; with a moral code comprising of ten laws, each involving someone getting shot if not observed. His story is a succession of snitching, scavenging and stealing in order to escape his perpetual state of starvation. Often these would lead into violence, incarceration and more violence that were simultaneously compelling, horrifying and astonishing that a part of me had to doubt the veracity of his story. But at the same time, the explicitness feels beyond the grasp of any stretch of imagination.

Excellent source material for aspiring dystopian writers out there, by the way. I couldn’t have dreamed this scenario if I tried.

I liked that Harden strove to link Shin’s story with the bigger events happening in the country as a whole, though these aspects could’ve been integrated better. How events in the global scale trickles from history to government to the very basic unit of this oppressed society: the man, the machine. 

However, there were redundant lapses and some pacing issues with regards to Shin’s backstory that often sent me into a numb lull from the unrelenting violence and portrayals of hunger. In some ways this helped me in finishing the other book I was reading because for a stretch, I could only read a chapter of this at a time.The first half a bit of a struggle to read through in one sitting but I was thoroughly engrossed with the second, after Shin has escaped from camp as he tries to assimilate in normal society. I can almost see the tearjerking historical fiction book this could inspire but I quite liked the ragged edges and halted progression this took in terms of Shin’s evolution. Because that’s what I had to constantly remind myself: he’s a real person and not a character.

I appreciate that Harden managed to cramp as much world politics as he could (I particularly liked that this addressed South Korea’s perspective from where it stands) in this one. Enough to make this casual reader curious about the rest of the story, about the Kim dynasty and what sparked this collective, for lack of a better term, insanity.

I wish I could end with something clever, something to encourage people to stop liking those Facebook posts to end world hunger, an inspiring passage or a quote. Unfortunately I’m left with none. 

Because as much as this was a book about hope, survival and the strength of the human spirit, it was also about the monsters that we all could be under much different circumstances.