Escape from Camp 14
One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
The heartwrenching New York Times bestseller about the only known person born inside a North Korean prison camp to have escaped
North Korea’s political prison camps have existed twice as long as Stalin’s Soviet gulags and twelve times as long as the Nazi concentration camps. No one born and raised in these camps is known to have escaped. No one, that is, except Shin Dong-hyuk.
In Escape From Camp 14, Blaine Harden unlocks the secrets of the world’s most repressive totalitarian state through the story of Shin’s shocking imprisonment and his astounding getaway. Shin knew nothing of civilized existence—he saw his mother as a competitor for food, guards raised him to be a snitch, and he witnessed the execution of his mother and brother.
The late “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il was recognized throughout the world, but his country remains sealed as his third son and chosen heir, Kim Jong Eun, consolidates power. Few foreigners are allowed in, and few North Koreans are able to leave. North Korea is hungry, bankrupt, and armed with nuclear weapons. It is also a human rights catastrophe. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people work as slaves in its political prison camps. These camps are clearly visible in satellite photographs, yet North Korea’s government denies they exist.
Harden’s harrowing narrative exposes this hidden dystopia, focusing on an extraordinary young man who came of age inside the highest security prison in the highest security state. Escape from Camp 14 offers an unequalled inside account of one of the world’s darkest nations. It is a tale of endurance and courage, survival and hope.
A Te achable Moment
His first memory is an execution.
He walked with his mother to a wheat field near the Taedong River, where guards had rounded up several thousand prisoners. Excited by the crowd, the boy crawled between adult legs to the front row, where he saw guards tying a man to a wooden pole.
Shin In Geun was four years old, too young to understand the speech that came before that killing. At dozens of executions in years to come, he would listen to a supervising guard telling the crowd that the prisoner about to die had been offered “redemption” through hard labor, but had rejected the generosity of the North Korean government. To prevent the prisoner from cursing the state that was about to take his life, guards stuffed pebbles into his mouth, then covered his head with a hood.
At that first execution, Shin watched three guards take aim. Each fired three times. The reports of their rifles terrified the boy and he fell over backward. But he scrambled to his feet in time to see guards untie a slack, blood-spattered body, wrap it in a blanket, and heave it into a cart.
In Camp 14, a prison for the political enemies of North Korea, assemblies of more than two inmates were forbidden, except for executions. Everyone had to attend them. The labor camp used a public killing—and the fear it generated—as a teachable moment.
Shin’s guards in the camp were his teachers—and his breeders. They had selected his mother and father. They taught him that prisoners who break camp rules deserve death. On a hillside near his school, a slogan was posted: all according to the rules and regulations. The boy memorized the camp’s ten rules, “The Ten Commandments,” as he later called them, and can still recite them by heart. The first one stated: “Anyone caught escaping will be shot immediately.”
Shin arrived this time in the backseat of a car driven by a guard. He wore handcuffs and a blindfold fashioned from a rag. His father, also handcuffed and blindfolded, sat beside him in the car.
They had been released from eight months in an underground prison inside Camp 14. As a condition of their release, they had signed documents promising never to discuss what had happened to them underground.
In that prison within a prison, guards tried to torture a confession out of Shin and his father. They wanted to know about the failed escape of Shin’s mother and only brother. Guards stripped Shin, tied ropes to his ankles and wrists, and suspended him from a hook in the ceiling. They lowered him over a fire. He passed out when his flesh began to burn.
But he confessed nothing. He had nothing to confess. He had not conspired with his mother and brother to escape. He believed what guards had taught him since his birth inside the camp: He could never escape and he must inform on anyone who talks about trying. Not even in his dreams had Shin fantasized about life on the outside.
Guards never taught him what every North Korean schoolboy learns: Americans are “bastards” scheming to invade and humiliate the homeland. South Korea is the “bitch” of its American master. North Korea is a great country whose brave and brilliant leaders are the envy of the world. Indeed, he knew nothing of the existence of South Korea, China, or the United States.
"Harden’s book, besides being a gripping story, unsparingly told, carries a freight of intelligence about this black hole of a country." —Bill Keller, The New York Times
“The central character in Blaine Harden's extraordinary new book Escape from Camp 14 reveals more in 200 pages about human darkness in the ghastliest corner of the world's cruelest dictatorship than a thousand textbooks ever could . . . Escape from Camp 14, the story of Shin's awakening, escape and new beginning, is a riveting, remarkable book that should be required reading in every high-school or college-civics class. Like "The Diary of Anne Frank" or Dith Pran's account of his flight from Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia, it's impossible to read this excruciatingly personal account of systemic monstrosities without fearing you might just swallow your own heart . . . Harden's wisdom as a writer shines on every page.” —The Seattle Times
"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 Associated Press
“A book without parallel, Escape from Camp 14 is a riveting nightmare that bears witness to the worst inhumanity, an unbearable tragedy magnified by the fact that the horror continues at this very moment without an end in sight.” —Terry Hong, Christian Science Monitor
“A remarkable story, [Escape from Camp 14 ] is a searing account of one man’s incarceration and personal awakening in North Korea’s highest-security prison.” —The Wall Street Journal
“As an action story, the tale of Shin’s breakout and flight is pure The Great Escape, full of feats of desperate bravery and miraculous good luck. As a human story it is gut wrenching; if what he was made to endure, especially that he was forced to view his own family merely as competitors for food, was written in a movie script, you would think the writer was overreaching. But perhaps most important is the light the book shines on an under-discussed issue, an issue on which the West may one day be called into account for its inactivity.” —The Daily Beast
“A riveting new biography . . . If you want a singular perspective on what goes on inside the rogue regime, then you must read [this] story. It’s a harrowing tale of endurance and courage, at times grim but ultimately life-affirming.” —CNN
“[Shin’s] tale becomes even more gripping after his unprecedented journey . . . after he realizes that he has been raised as something less than human. He gradually, haltingly—and, so far, with mixed success—sets out to remake himself as a moral, feeling human being.” —Fred Hiatt, The Washington Post
“If you have a soul, you will be changed forever by Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14 . . . Harden masterfully allows us to know Shin, not as a giant but as a man, struggling to understand what was done to him and what he was forced to do to survive. By doing so, Escape from Camp 14 stands as a searing indictment of a depraved regime and a tribute to all those who cling to their humanity in the face of evil.”—Mitchell Zuckoff, New York Times bestselling author of Lost in Shangri-La
"This is a story unlike any other . . . More so than any other book on North Korea, including my own, Escape from Camp 14 exposes the cruelty that is the underpinning of Kim Jong Il’s regime. Blaine Harden, a veteran foreign correspondent from The Washington Post, tells this story masterfully . . . The integrity of this book, shines through on every page.” —Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
“In Escape from Camp 14, Harden chronicles Shin’s amazing journey, from his very first memory—a public execution he witnessed as a 4-year-old—to his work with human rights advocacy groups in South Korea and the United States . . . By retelling Shin’s against-all-odds exodus, Harden casts a harsh light on a moral embarrassment that has existed 12 times longer than the Nazi concentration camps. Readers won’t be able to forget Shin’s boyish, emancipated smile—the new face of freedom trumping repression.” —Will Lizlo, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Blaine Harden of the Washington Post is an experienced reporter of other hellholes, such as the Congo, Serbia, and Ethiopia. These, he makes clear, are success stories compared to North Korea . . . Harden deserves a lot more than; ‘wow’ for this terrifying, grim and, at the very end, slightly hopeful story of a damaged man still alive only by chance, whose life, even in freedom, has been dreadful.” —Literary Review
“Harden tells a gripping story. Readers learn of Shin’s gradual discovery of the world at large, nonadversarial human relationships, literature, and hope—and the struggles ahead. A book that all adults should read.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“[A] chilling [and] remarkable story of deliverance from a hidden land.” —Kirkus Reviews
“With a protagonist born into a life of backbreaking labor, cutthroat rivalries, and a nearly complete absence of human affection, Harden’s book reads like a dystopian thriller. But this isn’t fiction—it’s the biography of Shin Dong-hyuk.” —Publishers Weekly
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