One day in the Camp 14 school, Shin’s teacher searches through the students’ pockets and finds five kernels of corn belonging to a young girl. The teacher screams at the girl. Then he takes her outside and beats her in the head until she is dead. Shin has been taught to believe that the prisoners deserve whatever punishment they receive, even execution.
As with the descriptions of Shin’s mother being raped in the previous chapter, Shin shows no emotion as he watches his peer being beaten to death. He’s surrounded by cruelty to the point where he’s desensitized to it, and brainwashed to believe that it is always necessary and justified.
In school, Shin is given a new pair of shoes every two years and, if he’s been good, a bar of soap. The classrooms are bare and undecorated—they don’t even have the usual portraits of Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung (who, despite having died years ago, is still an official ruler of North Korea). In school, Shin learns basic reading, writing, addition, and subtraction. For exercise, he runs around outside—he doesn’t see a soccer ball until he’s twenty-three. He learns nothing of history or geography, and has only a vague understanding of his country’s rulers.
As he presents it in the book, Shin’s life in Camp 14 was so miserable that something as banal as a bar of soap was a great luxury for him. However, since 2015, Shin has recanted some aspects of his story, suggesting that life in the prison camps may not have been quite as bad as he’d claimed (even if it was still awful). Shin claims he was never taught much about the Kim dynasty during his time in Camp 14, but since 2015, Shin has said that he was taught about the Kims—why he changed this element of the story is unclear.
Growing up, Shin is well aware what lies ahead for him: after finishing school, he’ll be working for the rest of his life. Even while still in school, he and his fellow students are required to scrape excrement out of toilets to provide fertilizer. His happiest moments occur when he and the other students are sent to the fields to search of herbs. These are some of the only occasions when he’s allowed to relax and play with other students.
Shin’s life was hard, but even in the confines of the prison camp he found a few moments in which to be happy. The fact that the prison guards forced children to scrape excrement from toilets is at once a sign of the guards’ authority and the fragility of life in much of North Korea: the country was so poor that it had to harvest whatever fuel sources it could find.
Perhaps Shin’s only friend is Hong Sung Jo. They play games together between classes, but they also view one another as competitors for food. Shin is a slow worker, and the entire class is often punished for his mistakes, alienating him from Hong.
Shin had friends, but he didn’t—couldn’t—allow friendships to interfere with his survival.
At ten, Shin begins working in coalmines, where he and his peers have to load coal into ore cars. One day, a girl who is Shin’s age, Moon Sung Sim, slips and crushes her toe beneath a steel wheel; the toe is later amputated. In the evenings, the students have to report what they’ve done wrong that day—Shin and his peers usually invent “sins” to keep their teachers from getting suspicious of any real wrongdoing—and then they’re smacked on the head. At night, the boys sleep together in the secondary school dormitory. Weaker boys such as Shin are forced to sleep far from the heated flue.
Shin’s peers were constantly having accidents, or being beaten by the guards. They worked long hours in dangerous conditions, so it’s no wonder that they hurt themselves. Life in the prison camp was an ugly, Darwinian struggle, with the strong seizing the lion’s share of the resources while the weaker children starved or froze.
Shin knows a boy named Ryu Hak Chul who sasses his teachers. One day, he ditches his work assignment to find food; afterwards, Ryu is tied to a tree, and his peers are ordered to beat him. Without thinking, Shin joins his classmates in hitting Ryu.