Shin’s time on the pig farm is some of his happiest at Camp 14. He doesn’t work very hard, and although the foreman sometimes hits him, he’s used to harsher beatings. His meals are larger than usual, and he has opportunities to eat corn intended for the pigs. He sleeps in a warm building, and he isn’t bullied. He seems uninterested in anything other than his next meal. His memories of informing on his family and being tortured recede into “numbness.”
Even though Shin had more time to himself than he’d ever had before, he didn’t know what to do with it. In a way, he seems to have had no “inner life”—his only thoughts were about finding a meal and surviving in the prison for as long as possible. He had never had the leisure of thinking about larger issues of guilt, morality, or the future.
Meanwhile, North Korea was going through big changes. Famine and flooding destroyed the national economy, and households are forced to trade with one another to survive. During this period, North Koreans (possibly as many as 400,000) snuck across the border to enter China. Kim Jong Il tried to control his people, punishing those who traded goods without government permission. However, corruption was becoming increasingly common at the time, and black market trading continued. Between 1995 and 2003, the U.S. donated more than a billion dollars worth of food to North Korea, for which Kim claimed all the credit. Studies found that, even after food aid, North Korea had higher malnutrition rates than Angola, a country that recently experienced a bloody civil war.
In the late 1990s, North Korea’s population was still struggling to feed itself, and as a result, a huge black market was emerging throughout the country. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the absence of reliable food sources in North Korea led to the establishment of secret underground trading networks—which the Kim family strictly forbade. The rise of corruption in the country testifies to the sinister incompetence of the Kim government: it couldn’t feed its people or stop them from feeding themselves.
In the face of a nationwide food crisis, the North Korean government had no choice but to institute economic reform. In 2002, Kim Jong Il legalized private farming and began offering farmers higher prices for food to incentivize agriculture. Slowly, capitalism began to grow in the country, weakening Kim’s “iron grip.” Kim retaliated by sending the Korean People’s Army to confiscate much of the food grown on new farms. This sparked widespread bribery—farmers just paid off soldiers rather than surrender their food.
The rise of capitalist trading networks must have infuriated the North Korean government, since they testified to the government’s inability to control its own population. Kim had no choice but to allow some limited private industry. Around the same time, the culture of corruption in North Korea reached an all-time high, to the point where the military and police forces accepted and even depended upon kickbacks.
Unbeknownst to Shin at the time, a system of corruption and “extralegal intercity travel” is growing, and this system will eventually help him escape from Camp 14. At the time, however, Shin doesn’t think about escape at all. Now twenty years old, he believes that he’s going to die on the pig farm. Then, without any explanation, he is transferred to the camp garment factory. There, Shin is under more pressure than usual to meet his quotas. It’s during Shin’s time at the factory, however, that Shin meet a prisoner from Pyongyang, who “would tell Shin about what he was missing.”
Shin was transferred to the garment factory for reasons he has never fully understood. This reflects a general weakness of the book as a study of the North Korean prison system: Harden’s only source of information is Shin, meaning that Shin can only say so much about the way the prison camp was governed and organized. Shin isn’t sure how much of a “method” there was to life in the camps: he can only offer his own limited perspective.