What really set the world on edge is the potential for the Unha-3 rocket to deliver a more deadly payload — a nuclear weapon. Before the failed launch, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned North Korea against “pursuing a cycle of provocation.”
Serious business, yet for your faithful correspondent, the overriding image of the week from North Korea was of a starving little girl who lost her life because of five kernels of corn.
The anecdote is one of the most shocking in Blaine Harden’s new book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. Harden tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, a man born in a North Korean forced-labor camp.
Shin’s birth in 1982 was the result of a “marriage” between two prisoners in Camp 14. His mother and father were allowed contact only a few times a year, so family in the conventional sense was a foreign concept to Shin. As was compassion, generosity, integrity and love. The inhabitants of Camp 14 were treated like work animals, expected to spend their short and brutal lives laboring to cleanse themselves of “sins” committed against the North Korean regime. In turn, the inmates treated each other in the same manner, viciously competing with their fellow prisoners for meager food and shelter at the camp.
Thus, Shin relates his experience in a prison school as a 6-year-old. A teacher subjected him and his fellow students to a surprise inspection of their pockets. One girl, Shin doesn’t recall her name, was caught hoarding five kernels of corn. Her punishment: the teacher beat her to death with a stick as she knelt in front of the class.
Having been born into this hell, Shin says, he was not particularly moved by the girl’s plight. Nor was he initially remorseful for having reported to authorities that his mother and older brother were plotting an escape. As his mother was hanged and brother executed by rifle, Shin says, his only emotion was anger at his relatives for putting him in this awful position; the guards tortured him even though he had nothing to do with the plot.
Collective and familial punishment is standard at the camps. Shin was locked up because of suspected disloyalty against the state on the part of his grandfather, an adherence to a decree by North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, “[E]nemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations.”
Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and was replaced by his son Kim Jong Il. In 2011, Kim Jong Un replaced his father at the time of Kim Jong Il’s death. Conditions for the nation’s citizens have only worsened under each succeeding generation. The CIA World Factbook notes the nation’s dire poverty, inability to feed itself and an industrial capacity “nearly beyond repair as a result of years of underinvestment, shortages of spare parts and poor maintenance.” Resources are plunged instead into propaganda that turns the ruling family into deities, a million-soldier army and projects like the Unha-3 rocket.
As one of as many as 200,000 prisoners held in North Korea’s gulags, Shin had no knowledge of his nation’s bleakness. He was busy surviving day to day when the best he might hope for is to catch a rat for meat to add to his sparse diet of corn, cabbage and salt. In fact, Escape from Camp 14 hints that not knowing of a wider world was a useful coping mechanism. Harden writes, “Shin’s misery never skidded into complete hopelessness. He had no hope to lose, no past to mourn, no pride to defend. He did not find it degrading to lick soup off the floor. He was not ashamed to beg a guard for forgiveness. It didn’t trouble his conscience to betray a friend for food. These were merely survival skills, not motives for suicide.”
After a chance encounter with a prisoner who had lived among North Korea’s privileged, Shin for the first time contemplated life outside the fence. Shin and his new acquaintance, Park Yong Chul, plotted a risky escape in 2005, one that succeeded for Shin but left his friend electrocuted on the camp fence. Shin made his way to China, eventually finding meager wages working on a hog farm. Still, he had a warm place to sleep and three hearty meals a day. It beat the brief time he spent living on the run during the brutal North Korean winter in the weeks following escape.
As Harden puts it, “His context had been twenty-three years in an open-air cage run by men who hanged his mother, shot his brother, crippled his father, murdered pregnant women, beat children to death, taught him to betray his family, and tortured him over a fire.”
Shin eventually found his way to South Korea and then the United States. He continues to struggle with life outside of Camp 14. “I am evolving from being an animal,” he says.
The destabilizing events of last week point to a North Korea as dangerous to the world as it is to its citizens. Harden, an ex-Washington Post reporter, includes an appropriate line from an editorial written by his former employer in 2008 when Shin’s story was first reported. It is a question facing the world today.
“High school students in America debate why President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t bomb the rail lines to Hitler’s camps,” the Post editorial noted. “Their children may ask, a generation from now, why the West stared at far clearer satellite images of Kim Jong Il’s camps, and did nothing.”
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.