In 1998, at the age of fifteen, Shin is working on a hydroelectric damn on the Taedong River. For the entire year, Shin eats three square meals a day—dam workers are treated especially well, since the dam is an important project. One day, Shin notices that a new concrete wall is collapsing. Although he screams a warning, the wall crushes eight people to death. After the accident, Shin’s guards simply tell him to remove the dead bodies and get back to work.
Since 2015, Shin has admitted that he distorted this portion of his life’s story: he did work on the dams, but only later, after he tried to escape from his prison camp.
North Korea hasn’t had good electricity in its entire history, despite its thousands of small rivers, which could theoretically power strong hydroelectric dams. Under the Kim dynasty, the government relied on fuel donated by the Soviet Union; since the nineties, however, the government has made hydroelectricity a priority. Dams have prevented total starvation in North Korea, and they’ve also strengthened the government’s claims of being “self-reliant”—even though North Korea has depended on foreign aid throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
North Korea’s lack of electricity is perhaps the best proof of its government’s incompetence. Though the Kims claim that North Korea is a proud, independent state, it’s relied on foreign aid from the Soviet Union and later the United States to survive. This reflects the Kims’ almost total self-interest: they live in luxury and seemingly have no long-term plans for their country’s survival.
The North Korean government has enlisted its propaganda wing to find ways of glamorizing the famines that have periodically broken out since 1990. One propaganda campaign tried to encourage North Koreans to harvest their own excrement to use as fertilizer; another encouraged city-dwellers to move back to the country and become farmers. These attempts haven’t been successful, however.
The propaganda wing tried to convince its people to enjoy and celebrate their country’s famines and energy crises—but of course, these campaigns failed: propaganda will almost always be a weaker motivator than self-interest.
In Camp 14, the construction of the hydroelectric dam requires thousands of workers. Shin spends all his time near the dam, and he receives better food than usual, but he witnesses many people die on the job. One day in July 1998, a sudden flash flood sweeps away dozens of his fellow workers. Shin is ordered to find the bodies of dead workers, and for each body he finds, he is given an extra portion of rice. He’s also forced to work in the freezing water, picking out boulders. All things considered, working on the dam is preferable to working elsewhere. Shin gets more food than usual and remembers his dam site meals as some of the happiest times of his teen years. He gains weight and regains confidence in his ability to survive. He also enjoys more independence than other camp workers, since he’s allowed to walk anywhere in Camp 14 when he’s not working.
Shin’s life working on the dam was easier than it could have been elsewhere in the camp, but it’s important to keep in mind that it was very, very far from easy: on the contrary, Shin risked his life almost every day, working in the freezing cold water and toiling in unsafe conditions. It’s important to realize that Shin was given jobs that afforded him more independence and, presumably, more time to think about the future.
In 1999, Shin’s time in secondary school ends, meaning that his teacher assigns him and his classmates to different jobs for the remainder of their lives. Most of Shin’s peers, including Hong Joo Hyun and Hong Sung Jo, are sent to the coalmines, and Shin never sees them again. Regardless of the reason, Shin’s teacher saves his life by sending him to the pig farm, where there is a lot of food to steal.
Shin learned very little during his time in “school”—the most important lesson was to obey authority. Thus, when he received his assignment, he accepted it without question. Had Shin been assigned somewhere else, he could have died—again raising the possibility that Shin was only assigned to the pig farm (and, in the end, only escaped from camp) because he betrayed his family and received a reward. However, Shin later admitted that he distorted this part of his life’s story: he was transferred to a pig farm in Camp 18 after trying to escape from the camp.