Under a demented doctrine laid down by Kim Il Sung, the communist tyrant who founded North Korea, "enemies of class … must be eliminated through three generations." The regime therefore fills these unspeakable camps not only with "enemies" who dared to practice Christianity or failed to keep a picture of Kim properly dusted, but with their entire families, often including grandparents and grandchildren. Shin's father ended up in Camp 14 because two of his brothers had fled south during the Korean War. He and Shin's mother were assigned to each other by camp guards years later as prizes in a "reward" marriage. They were allowed to sleep together just five nights a year. Shin was thus conceived -- and spent the first 23 years of his life -- behind the electrified barbed wire of Kim's ghastly hellhole.
Harden's book is gripping and enlightening. Yet not even the most gifted writer can fully convey what it means to grow up in a Camp 14 -- a realm in which "love and mercy and family were words without meaning," in which betrayal was routine and compassion unknown. How does a human being overcome such damage? Grisly physical scars mark Shin's body, Harden writes, but there are severe psychological scars too. He struggles to show affection and to trust other people; to be capable of sympathy and sadness.
How could it be otherwise? After a lifetime of dehumanization and institutionalized cruelty, Shin can hardly be blamed if he wrestles with emotional paralysis.
But what excuse do we have? We who know what freedom and civilization mean, who live with law and justice and decency, who intone "Never Again" after accounts of genocide and holocaust -- how do we justify our emotional paralysis?
There is no cruelty so depraved that people cannot be induced to do it, or to look the other way while it is being done. Escape from Camp 14 reconfirms what we have known for years: North Korea's rulers brutalize their people with unparalleled and bloody barbarity. Why do we find it so easy to look the other way?