Shortly after informing on his coworker, Shin begins spying on a new prisoner named Park Yong Chul. Shin is under strict instructions from the superintendent to befriend Park and learn as much as he can about Park’s family and politics. Shin spends lots of time with Park, but Park volunteers no information about himself.
Park, much like Uncle (another father figure for Shin), was intelligent enough not to give away details of his past to Shin right away.
As time goes on, Park begins to open up about his past. He tells Shin that he is from Pyongyang—to Park’s amazement, Shin has never heard of the city (the country’s capital) before. Park begins to tell Shin about his childhood in North Korea’s elite circles, and his experiences teaching taekwondo. He even claims to have shaken hands with Kim Jong Il. Shin admires Park for his humility and decency. As he spends more time with Park, Shin learns more about the surrounding world. Park tells Shin about South Korea—a country where, he claims, everyone is rich. Shin begins fantasizing about life outside the camps, and he makes “perhaps the first free decision of his life”—the decision not to snitch.
Much like Uncle, Park enjoyed entertaining Shin with stories about the outside world, about which Shin knew next to nothing—and certainly planting the seed for Shin’s later desire to escape. (It’s also interesting to note that despite being a prisoner of the regime, Park still feels that it was a great honor to have shaken his dictator’s hand.) The passage is also important because it claims that Shin’s first free decision was not to inform on Park. Harden clearly takes the position that Shin isn’t really morally accountable for betraying his family to the guards: that decision was the result of brainwashing, not conscious choice.
Looking back, Shin doesn’t believe that he refused to snitch on Park out of decency—rather, he was being selfish, since he wanted Park to help him escape. Shin, who’s been raised not to trust anyone, is amazed by Park’s trusting nature—he seems to talk about himself without considering the consequences. Park explains that he was demoted as a head taekwondo trainer in 2002. He was then forced to move north, where he and his wife illegally crossed into China. Park there learned about Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-ranking official ever to defect from North Korea. Hwang spoke about the corruption and malevolence of the North Korean government.
Even in making a seemingly moral and selfless choice Shin admits that he still acted for selfish reasons. Park was a member of Pyongyang’s elite inner circle: as a taekwondo supervisor, he met with and trained many powerful people. However, Park eventually decided to leave North Korea, recognizing that his country had nothing more to offer him.
In 2003, Park tells Shin, he returned to North Korea to vote in the elections. Elections in North Korea are “empty rituals,” with candidates chosen by the government and run without opposition. Park feared that if he failed to vote, the government would declare him a traitor and send his family to labor camps. He was detained as he tried to re-enter North Korea and sent to Camp 14.
Park’s fatal mistake was to return to North Korea to vote in the elections. Readers might find it ludicrous that Park would have returned to a police state after being lucky enough to make it out alive—however, Park feared that his family would be punished unless he did so.
In particular, Shin is struck by how elegantly Park carries himself when he eats his meals. Even when he is very hungry, Park refuses to act panicked; instead, he eats slowly and calmly. He also loves to sing, which irritates Shin, who’s heard barely any music in his entire life. One night, Park convinces Shin to join him in song. Together, they sing “Song of the Winter Solstice,” the theme music of a popular North Korean TV program.
Park impressed Shin in many ways, but above all, he embodied the fascinations of life outside Camp 14—something Shin had barely ever thought about before now (at least according to this account—it’s unclear how this fits in with his later version of events). The lack of music in Shin’s life is just another tragic instance of how deprived and dehumanized he’s been his whole life.
In November, the guards announce that they will be treating prisoners who have lice. The guards demonstrate a new lice-killing chemical by applying it to the scalps of five men and five women. Within a week, all ten of them have developed boils, and their skin begins to flake off. The prisoners are taken away, and Shin never sees them again. It’s then that Shin decides that “he had had enough. He begins thinking about escape.” Park makes Shin’s escape possible by inspiring Shin to think about the world outside the camp.
As the passage presents the information, Shin’s painful experiences at the garment factory, combined with his friendship with Park, inspired him to escape from camp. However, Shin later admitted that he exaggerated his naiveté about the surrounding world—he’d already escaped from prison camp twice already. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable that Park could inspire Shin to sneak out a third time—proof that hope, friendship, and the desire to live a good life are often more powerful motivators than the threat of further punishment.
Park and Shin’s friendship was similar to the friendships that emerged at Nazi concentration camps, Harden writes. Often, the people who survived the camps worked in pairs, stealing food and clothing for each other and—just as crucially—looking together to a more hopeful future. It’s surprising how quickly Shin’s friendship with Park changed his worldview. Suddenly, Shin had a friend to help him escape from Camp 14.
Throughout his time in the camp, Shin had operated from the assumption that his best chance of surviving was to look out for himself and nobody else. Now, he realized that his best chances to survival hinged upon his working alongside Park. In a way, Shin was still acting selfishly—just trying to maximize his chances of surviving—but he was also learning to trust and respect another person.