‘Escape from Camp 14’ author visits DU; discusses prisoner escapes and struggles

By Jackie Glosniak

February 27, 2013

Mauthausen concentration may have been one of the last of the Nazi Germany concentration camps to close over 60 years ago, but in North Korea, camps like these continue to torture populations and destroy families.

Dominican students, faculty and community members gathered last Wednesday in the Lund Auditorium to hear journalist Blaine Harden share the details of his book about the escape of a prisoner from the country’s cruelest prisoner camps, Camp 14.

Harden’s book, “Escape from Camp 14,” details the life of Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean man born inside of a forced-labor prison camp who never knew what life was like outside of the camp until his escape as a young adult.

Harden first learned of Camp 14 and Shin after traveling to North Korea to cover stories for the Washington Post. He was sent on assignment to the totalitarian state to understand the country in a different, more human way than is normally reported in the news. Harden did not just want to report back on events occurring in North Korea; he wanted to learn about the people, their customs and their struggles living in a state where harsh dictators run the nation and the elites prosper from the skewed economic system.

It was during his time in North Korea that Harden discovered the story of Shin. Through the help of a translator, Harden was able to meet Shin and learn the harrowing details of his life inside the prison camp under the government rule of Kim Jong-il.

Born and raised in Camp 14, Shin grew up in a community where his family endured hard physical labor under unsanitary conditions and lived in daily fear of never leaving the torturous, slavery-like lifestyle. Prisoners of Camp 14 work long hours in fields, reside in cramped, unsanitary housing units and are subject to the orders of prison guards every minute of their lives.

The creation of escape plans, disobedience against guards and discussions putting down the government of North Korea are grounds for either beatings or execution. Access to food is not a promise in the camp, and oftentimes, prisoners resort to eating rats and drinking dirty standing water to survive.

While writing stories for the Washington Post about the prison camp and the government of North Korea, Harden discovered something a year into writing his book about Shin that he was not made aware of before. After feeling more comfortable opening up to Harden, Shin confessed that he was responsible for the killings of his mother and brother at Camp 14. Shin overheard his brother and mother planning an escape from the camp, and even though he knew escape plans were grounds for execution, he snitched to a prison guard, resulting in the immediate death of his mother and brother. Prisoners who have never lived life outside the camps have no idea what the outside world is like, and young children are taught and encouraged to snitch on those who speak ill of the government, whether or not it is a family member.

While speaking with Shin was difficult at times, Harden never felt intimidated by him or his story. This was the strongest story of Harden’s career, and never in his journalism career before has he had such a strong response to a story as he has experienced with the story of Shin.

“There is no one like Shin [in North Korea],” Harden said. “His personal affect is unique, and it was difficult at times for him to trust me and open up. [However], he felt he owed people the truth.”

Since Shin’s escape in 2005, he has had much learning and adjusting to do to the real world, which has proved very difficult for him. While Shin suffers from a range of mental disturbances from growing up in the camp, he travels across the world with other reporters telling his story to those who have never heard of the horrors of prison camps in North Korea.

“He is extremely intelligent with an extremely good memory,” Harden explained. “He always tells the exact same story.”

“Escape from Camp 14” has had a great response around the world for its education on the feudal system of North Korea and its open account from a prisoner raised within the cruelty of their political system. “North Korea is an isolated, angry country,” Harden said. “You can’t forget this story.”

“I thought it was really awesome,” junior Erin Van Buskirk said. “It was really interesting and informative, and I wish Dominican would have more speakers like that come here and talk.”

“I thought the presentation was incredibly interesting, informative, but mostly moving,” junior Lauren Godsel said. “Shin’s story is heartbreaking and has the power to change our perspective on the world around us, which we sometimes disregard.”

Assistant Director of Student Involvement Katie Kramer agreed that the lecture was both enjoyable and informative.

“Harden’s visit to DU was so powerful,” Kramer said. “His work is shedding light on the outrageous injustices that are still happening today in North Korea. I am deeply saddened by Shin’s story but encouraged that so many people, including myself, have been educated by his bravery and sharing.”

Harden believes that “Escape from Camp 14” and the story of Shin is something that Americans can definitely learn from, even though many never endured such hardships in their lives anywhere near living in a prison work camp. He believes that Americans should understand more about what life is like in North Korea, and finds it important that people not forget that there is so much turmoil happening right now to a large population of a country.

Harden thinks the story is a wonderful way for people to educate themselves on an important issue concerning crimes against humanity in an area which has received little to no attention. Despite never having similar life experiences to Shin, Harden asks this question for Americans who wonder how this book can serve as a learning experience: “What would you do if you had been taught to betray the people around you?”