Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, Blaine Harden (2012)
Under Nazism, people got killed for belonging to the wrong race. Under communism, people get killed for belonging to the wrong species. That is, in North Korea you don’t have to do or be anything wrong to be killed by the state. The system there isn’t designed to be just: it’s designed to be terrifying. But it doesn’t just kill people deliberately, in slave-labour camps and torture-chambers, it also kills them through inefficiency and incompetence. Even people high in the favour of the communist party have starved to death there during famines. If the capitalist world hadn’t supplied aid, even more would have died. The promise of communism, according to Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution (1924), was this:
The shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.
The reality of North Korea, according to Blaine Harden, is this:
Nearly all [young refugees from North Korea] struggle with basic reading and maths. Some are cognitively impaired, apparently from acute malnutrition as infants… As young children, they grew up eating bark off trees and thinking it was normal. (ch. 21, pg. 188)
Shin Dong-hyuk, the subject of this book, grew up grubbing desperately for food in a slave-labour camp. He was born there and stayed there, guilty of being the child of two political prisoners, one of whom was guilty of having a brother who escaped to South Korea. The struggle to survive was so acute that he had little or no feeling for his family, according to Harden. His mother and elder brother were executed after he informed on them for attempting to escape. If he hadn’t done, he himself would have been in trouble, because any escape is blamed on the relatives. That includes suicide: in North Korea, the state owns everything, including its citizens’ lives. I’m not sure Marx himself was a psychopath, but he certainly helped create a lot of psychopathic governments. North Korea, which keeps Stalinism alive more than fifty years after Stalin’s death, is one of the worst. After Shin had informed on his mother, he was imprisoned underground and tortured anyway, because the guard to whom he reported the escape-attempt tried to claim all the credit for himself. Even when he convinced the camp authorities that he had been loyal to the state, rather than to his blood-relatives, he remained in that prison-within-a-prison until he was let out to see them executed.
How old was he then? He “had just turned fourteen” (ch. 8, pg. 75). And how did he feel about what had happened?
…he hated his mother and brother with the savage clarity of a wronged and wounded adolescent. As he saw it, he had been tortured and nearly died, and his father had been crippled, because of their foolish, self-centred scheming. (ibid., pg. 77)
Later, after he escaped, first to China, then to South Korea and America, he began to learn how to feel properly human, which meant he began to tortured by guilt. It was irrational for him to feel that way, but you can’t blame him. And who can you blame for what goes on in North Korea? The system has a life of its own, or rather a living death. North Korea is a zombie-state, lurching on down the highway of history even as it decomposes and disintegrates. There will be no happy ending there. Even if the regime collapses without launching attacks on Japan and South Korea, the costs of draining the cesspit of communism will be huge:
South Koreans have paid close attention to the price tag of German unification. The proportional burden on South Korea, some studies have found, would be two and a half times greater than on West Germany after it absorbed the former East Germany. Studies have found that it would cost more than two trillion dollars over thirty years, raise taxes for six decades and require that ten per cent of the South’s gross domestic product be spent in the North for the foreseeable future. (ch. 22, pg. 199)
The North Korean system has been as efficient at immiseration as the South Korean has been at enrichment: “South Korea’s economy is thirty-eight times larger than the North’s; its international trade volume is two hundred and twenty-four times larger” (ibid., pg. 197). The peninsula of Korea has been like a huge experiment in economics and sociology, and the results are visible from outer space. At night, South Korea blazes with light and North Korea is blacked out, because of electricity shortages. Something similar is true of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. The Haitian side is stripped bare of vegetation and, like North Korea, Haiti is propped up by outside aid. But that Caribbean difference seems to have something to do with race: Haiti was the first black republic and showed the way for failed black Zimbabwe and failing black South Africa. The Korean peninsula is occupied by a single highly intelligent race: it’s the different systems that explain why one is a dazzling success and the other an abject failure.
But this book describes how success in the south comes with a price. South Korea’s “obession with achievement” has harmed its society: “Although the suicide rate in most other wealthy countries peaked in the early 1980s, it continues to climb in South Korea, doubling since 2000” (ch. 22, pg. 201). Paradoxically, Shin coped better with life in a slave-labour camp than many of his contemporaries in the free and affluent South: he felt no inclination to kill himself because suffering was normal to him. Never having known a better life, he didn’t compare his present with his past: it had always been bad and seemed as though it always would be. He didn’t think about escape until he befriended a new arrival in the camp, Park Yong Chul, who “had lived abroad”, had a “well-connected life”, and “knew senior people in the North Korean government” (ch. 13, pg. 113). Park’s stories about the outside world gave Shin a point of comparison: “He suddenly understand where he was and what he was missing. Camp 14 was no longer home: it was an abhorrent cage” (ibid., pg. 122). The abhorrence of the cage is revealed by a vignette that isn’t in itself very horrific. It’s a small thing that symbolizes a lot:
In the middle of a night shift on the floor of the factory, Park alarmed Shin by bursting into song.
“Hey! What do you think you are doing?” Shin asked, fearing that a foreman might hear.
“Singing,” Park said.
“Stop at once,” Shin told him.
Shin had never sung a song. His only exposure to music had been on the farm, when trucks with loudspeakers played military marching music while prisoners picked weeds. To Shin, singing seemed unnatural and insanely risky. (ch. 13, pg. 119)
Park did not survive the escape attempt: he was killed trying to pass the camp’s electrified outer fence. The weight of his corpse “pulled down the bottom strand of wire” (ch. 15, pg. 134), creating a small gap, and Shin was able to crawl through, using the corpse “as a kind of insulating pad”. He still suffered severe electric burns and he knew that his father, still in the camp, would be punished for his escape. Readers familiar with World War Two escape stories will know that escapees found it difficult to pass undetected once they were out among civilians. Shin didn’t: North Korea is so poor and short of everyday materials that poorly dressed, half-starved slave-labourers don’t attract attention when they escape. He eventually found his way across the northern border to China, which is communist but not a slave-state, although it employs slave-labour in its Gulag, the Laogai. It still bears some responsibility for the horrors of North Korea, however, because it props the regime up as a “buffer” against South Korea. This means that it sometimes deports North Korean refugees and tries to stop them seeking asylum in foreign embassies. But Shin successfully found sanctuary in the South Korean consulate in Shanghai. He’s now in America, but still well aware that children in North Korea continue to live as he once did:
Eating rats not only filled empty stomachs, it was essential for survival. Their flesh could help prevent pellagra, a sometimes fatal disease that was rampant in the camps, especially in the winter. Prisoners with pellagra, the result of a lack of protein and niacin in their diets, suffered weakness, skin lesions, diarrhoea and dementia. It was a frequent cause of death. (ch. 1, pg. 27)
This book is short and easy to read, in one sense. In another sense, it isn’t. It has lots of unpleasant stories, but it isn’t atrocity porn and it seems trustworthy. North Korea is a sick state and a sick joke and Escape from Camp 14 is a good introduction to a bad place. For more history and more horror, I recommend one of the books Harden lists in his acknowledgments: Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2010). It’s also useful to remember that there have always been lots of politicians, academics, and journalists in the West who hope that they’ll be able to try Marx’s recipes too. In fact, they’ve already cooked up some tasty totalitarianism and hope to cook up a lot more. I quoted Trotsky at the beginning. Here’s some Nietzsche to end with:
In the doctrine of socialism there is hidden, rather badly, a “will to negate life”; the human beings or races who think up such a doctrine must be bungled. Indeed, I should wish that a few great experiments might prove that in a socialist society life negates itself, cuts off its own roots. The earth is large enough and man still sufficiently unexhausted; hence such a practical instruction and demonstratio ad absurdum would not strike me as undesirable, even if it were gained and paid for with a tremendous expenditure of human lives. (The Will to Power, Book One: European Nihilism, #125, translated by Walter Kaufmann)
Nietzsche wrote that in 1885. In 2012, the demonstratio ad absurdum and the tremendous expenditure go on in the slave-state of North Korea.