Human Acts by Han Kang
Since the death of the North Korea’s Dear Leader last year, the isolated country has popped back up on the radar of the American public, who previously had mostly written it off as unimportant or nominal when it came to world politics. With Kim Jong-il’s passing, and the subsequent handoff of power to his son, a bit of attention has refocused on the Korean peninsula; examinations of the political manipulation and terror that are widespread are starting to be taken seriously. It is in this perfectly suited climate that Blaine Harden’s powerful book Escape from Camp 14 has been published.
Escape from Camp 14 is the tale of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known North Korean prisoner to have been born in a prison camp and escape the country. While thousands of other North Koreans have made the treacherous trip across the northern border, into an unwelcoming China and eventually on to South Korea, where they are granted citizenship, Shin did so with very little knowledge of the world outside the fences of his camp.
Shin’s childhood was marred by starvation, torture and a constant feeling of fear. Trust, love and friendship are words that meant nothing within the walls of Camp 14. It isn’t until he is thrown into an underground jail for crimes he didn’t commit that he starts to know that there are other countries outside of his own, that there is another way of life than he has always known. Once that light bulb begins to shine, however dimly, in his mind, he can’t let it go.
There have been other books written by survivors of not only the North Korean prison system, but those strong souls who made it through the concentration camps of World War II and other horrible circumstances around the world. For me though, Shin’s story stands out amongst the memoirs for a couple of reasons. First, while many people who endure the horrors of war or oppressive governments knew a different lifestyle before, knew the meaning of love and trust and family, Shin was born into Hell. From the very beginning, he was just another mouth to feed, another form of competition for the already meager rations provided to those living in the camp. He didn’t have memories of better times to sustain him. Camp life was the only life he had ever known. Second, Harden doesn’t whitewash the tale to make it more comfortable for the reader. I appreciate that Shin’s story stands as it is. There were times when I was reading the book that I became really frustrated with Shin and the decisions he was making. Like many North Korean defectors, Shin has a very hard time assimilating to a world not ruled by guards. A fictional tale of escape would have the protagonist go through some growing pains and then settle in to a life of freedom and live happily ever after. Shin’s story doesn’t end with a happily ever after, at least not yet, but that is the reality of his (and probably many others’) situation. It is uncomfortable for the reader, but there is no easy answer to how to deal with the psychological turmoil he wakes up to each day.
This recently published book shines a spotlight on a country that has been in the news, but often in a way that mocks it slightly. Its past leaders have been eccentrics who seem clownish to the outside world, but behind the giant glasses and stiffly combed hair are men who allow their countrymen to be beaten, tortured, and to starve and die while the leaders enjoy vacation homes by the sea. While the story can be frustrating to read on an emotional level, it is well-told and serves an eye-opening account of the realities of life behind the electrified, barbed-wire topped fences of North Korea’s prison camps. Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14 earns: