Shin and his mother live in one of the best parts of Camp 14—a “model village,” consisting of forty one-story buildings, each of which houses four families. The families have to share a kitchen, and have no beds, chairs, tables, or running water. They’re forced to defecate in a special area, since their excrement is used to fertilize the camp’s farm. The only food for prisoners is cabbage soup and corn porridge.
In Camp 14, Shin and his peers weren’t allowed to spend much time with each other; they lived in communal homes and worked long hours. This prevented the prisoners from forming alliances and loyalties that could strengthen them against the guards.
As a child, Shin eats the food his mother brought home for meeting her “daily work quota.” Sometimes, he eats his mother’s food, too—but when this happens, she beats him. At the time, Shin thinks of his mother, whose name is Jang Hye Gyung, as a mere competitor for food, rather than a loving parent. Jang never talks about why she is in the camp. The camp guards forced her to marry Shin’s father and have a child; at the camp, sex is forbidden unless guards approve it.
Shin grew up without feeling any real affection for his mother—his only priority was surviving, and his mother apparently never showed him any affection, meaning that he thought of his mother as an obstacle to his survival, not a beloved presence in his life. Notice that the guards forbid sex; again, this prevented the prisoners from forming strong connections or alliances.
Shin’s father is named Shin Gyung Sub. Supposedly, the guards rewarded him with a marriage to Jang because he was good at operating a lathe. Marriage is usually seen as a promotion, since it leads to a better job and housing. After her marriage, for instance, Jang was given a farm job, which allowed her to steal extra food. However, Jang and Shin Gyung Sub were only allowed to sleep together a few times; afterwards, Shin’s father went back to living in a dormitory and only saw Shin a few times a year. Jang and Shin Gyung Sub also have an older son, He Geun, who Shin barely knows. Shin grows up without feeling affection for his parents or brother.
Shin’s father, much like his mother, was a distant presence in his life. Shin didn’t feel any real love for his father, and in fact barely spent any time with him. By the same token, Shin’s father seemed to think of his son as a distant person whom he barely knew. As a result, Shin grew up without any strong loyalties to anybody other than himself: quite understandably, all he cared about was feeding himself and surviving until the next day.
Growing up, Shin’s only source of certainty is the guards, who encourage him to snitch on his peers. However, he also witnesses the head guard having sex with Jang. Jang puts up no resistance, and Shin never speaks to his mother about what he’d seen. A few years later, he witnesses a guard forcing his mother to kneel and raise her arms for more than an hour, until she passes out from exhaustion. Later, Jang is subjected to an “ideological struggle” meeting, in which her fellow workers yell at her for failing to fill her quota.
Shin witnessed his mother endure unspeakable cruelty: the guards raped and assaulted her, and her peers bullied her for falling behind on her work quota. And yet Harden gives the impression that Shin didn’t feel any strong emotion about this: he watched, blank-faced, as the guards (whom he had been taught to fear but also to respect and obey) raped his mother, unsure what to feel. The “ideological struggle” seems like both a punishment and a kind of brainwashing.
Shin feeds himself by catching rats, frogs, and bugs. Without these food sources, he could catch pellagra, a common disease at Camp 14. Shin also learns how to find wild berries. But during the winter, he and his peers never have enough food. The eating problems that Shin experiences are common throughout North Korea; malnutrition has lowered the average height and weight of the North Korean population and increased the probability of mental disability. In the 1990s, the U.S. became North Korea’s largest food donor, even as North Korea continued to demonize America.
Survival was a desperate struggle for Shin; he had to scramble for food every chance he got or risk starving to death. As Harden has suggested earlier, Camp 14 is a more intense version of North Korea itself, a country in which a huge chunk of the population goes hungry every day. The future of North Korea poses an ethical challenge to the United States: should the U.S. continue to send the country food, even though this arguably strengthens the Kim dynasty’s control over the country, or should it let North Korea collapse (which will hurt its poorest citizens most of all)?
Shin grows up in Camp 14, unaware that his country’s government can’t feed its own population. He has no idea that tens of thousands of North Koreans have left their homes and walked to China in search of food. Life for Shin is an endless routine of hunger, theft, and beatings.
One reason Shin took so many years to plot an escape is that he had no life outside the camp to long for: Camp 14 was his own, self-contained universe.