Prison camp, forced-labor camp, concentration camp, gulag, killing fields - how is this still happening?
This book has been featured quite a bit in the media in the last couple of months and the buzz is well deserved, in my opinion. Little has been documented about the North Korean prison camps and successful defectors are rare. Shin Dong-hyuk is the only known person born into one of North Korea's prison labor camps who has escaped. Others have escaped to tell their tale, but Shin's story is remarkable in that he had never known life outside of the camp.
Growing up in Camp 14, Shin develops a value system that does not differentiate between good and evil, right and wrong, loyalty and betrayal, or even love and hate. Separated from his parents almost completely at a young age, even family is unknown to Shin. Survival is the only focus. And because almost everyone is starving, survival means doing what you can to get food. Shin snitches, lies, and betrays in order to survive.
The many, many details about the conditions of the camp and how prisoners are treated are shocking. How anyone survives at all is a testament to human resilience. I will share a few things that I found particularly appalling:
1. If a citizen is accused of any sort of infraction outside of the camps (many of the prisoners that Shin came into contact with were imprisoned for "ideological" reasons), three generations of their family might be imprisoned in order to cleanse the gene pool of the bad behavior.
2. Some of the prison labor at Camp 14 includes work in a seven building garment factory that is so large it can be seen from a satellite. Reading about the conditions at the garment factory, in particular the injuries, made me sick to my stomach. I am checking clothing labels a lot more closely after reading this.
3. Reports vary, but from one-third to forty-five percent of all North Korean children are currently malnourished and stunted in their growth because of a lack of food. More than 20,000 people in the Province of South Hwanghae have died of starvation since the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011. Much of the food that is sent by world aid groups gets sold on the black market and never makes its way to the starving.
It only takes a couple of hours to read this book and I think it's an important one. If you're looking for more information, there are two other escape stories from the last decade or so, Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor by Kim Yong about a privileged lieutenant colonel in the North Korean army imprisoned after being accused of treason and The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Ch`or-hwan Kang who was imprisoned along with his entire family after his grandfather was accused of counter-revolutionary tendencies.