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Hitler's death camps, Stalin's gulag and Pol Pot's killing fields are now the stuff of history, but the unspeakable horrors they evoke still endure in the labor camps of North Korea.
However, the veil of secrecy that has kept the camps off the world's radar screen may now be less opaque thanks to the courage of a young man who was born in the harshest of those prisons and at age 23 miraculously escaped and made his way to the West.
Shin Dong-hyuk's story, told by veteran journalist Blaine Harden in Escape From Camp 14, details how Shin was bred by camp guards who selected his mother and father. Shin was tortured and starved, taught to inform on family members and classmates, and forced to watch the public execution of his mother and older brother.
Shin learned during an interrogation that his father was imprisoned because two of his 11 brothers had fled to the South during the Korean War. Shin had to remain in captivity because his father's sins against the state had left him with tainted blood.
He had no knowledge of the world outside Camp 14, a 108-square-mile compound encircled by electrified barbed wire that became home to up to 50,000 prisoners who worked long hours in mines, farms and factories.
Prisoners were consigned to lives of squalor while subsisting on meager portions of corn and cabbage. The rules were strict, and violators faced swift punishment. Shin said he felt no anger as he watched his teacher beat a 6-year-old classmate to death after he found five kernels of corn hidden in her pocket. Shin, ever passive, thought her punishment was just and fair.
His thoughts turned to escape only after he met an older prisoner who had traveled outside Korea and described to him a world of computers and mobile phones. Faced with constant hunger, Shin was more interested in his friend's stories about food. "Freedom, in Shin's mind, was just another word for grilled meat."
Shin suffered severe burns as he slipped through the fence. He then found himself with no coat in the brutally cold Korean winter and no idea how to make his way to China and freedom. But even as his odyssey took him from there to South Korea and eventually to the U.S., where he decided to work as a human rights activist for North Korean prisoners, his adjustment to a new life posed severe emotional challenges.
"I am evolving from being an animal," he told Harden. "Sometimes I try to cry and laugh like other people, just to see if it feels like anything. Yet, tears don't come. Laughter doesn't come."
As U.S. policymakers wonder what changes may arise after the recent death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, this gripping book should raise awareness of the brutality that underscores this strange land. Without interrupting the narrative, Harden skillfully weaves in details of North Korea's history, politics and society, providing context for Shin's plight.
The cruelties inflicted on Shin and the thousands of others who were chosen by Kim's regime to work themselves to death at Camp 14 make for grim reading. The book is slim enough to finish in a sitting or two, but readers may find the accounts of torture and privation so harrowing that they limit themselves to a couple of chapters at a time.