On January 2, 2005—nine years after his mother’s execution, at the age of 23—Shin escaped from Camp 14. He is believed to be the only person born in a North Korean prison camp to escape with his life. A month later, Shin was living in China; two years later, he was in South Korea. Four years later, he was living in California and working as a senior ambassador at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a human rights group. In California, Shin—now going by the name Shin Dong-hyuk—likes riding his bike and eating burgers. His body is “a road map of the hardships of growing up in a labor camp”—he’s been burned and scarred, and he’s missing a finger.
Because Harden hasn’t revised his book since 2015, he presents this information as the truth. In reality, however, Shin had escaped from Camp 18 twice before he made his way to South Korea. It’s also impossible to know for sure whether Shin is really the only person born in a prison camp to escape with his life. Shin was conditioned from an early age to be obedient and remain inside the camp—in fact, he still struggles with the torture and abuse he endured as a prisoner. Therefore, it would seem, few prisoners born in a North Korean prison camp would even have tried to flee.
Shin is about the same age as Kim Jong Eun, who became the North Korean leader in 2011. Kim was raised in luxury; he studied in Switzerland and was named a four-star general, despite his total lack of military experience. It remains to be seen what kind of leader he’ll be, Harden writes. Shin, who lived on the other extreme of wealth in North Korea, was born a slave and never learned to read well. He lived in a prison camp whose existence the government still denies.
In addition to being about a North Korean prison camp, the book studies the North Korean state overall. North Korea is often considered one of the most corrupt and tyrannical countries on the planet: the vast majority of the country lives in abject poverty, but the Kim family itself lives in luxury, turning its back on its population’s suffering.
There are lots of stories about concentration camps, perhaps the most famous of which is Night by Elie Wiesel. In Night, the narrator sacrifices his moral principles in order to survive in a Nazi death camp, though he remembers his family with love. Shin’s story of survival is very different—his mother hit him and his father ignored him, and neither showed him any real affection. He also has no memories of life outside Camp 14—he was born there, and learned the camp’s values before learning anything else.
Harden wants to make it clear that this will not be a stereotypical story about transcending one’s pain by remembering one’s family. One further implication of this fact is that the book doesn’t have a particularly happy ending. Shin doesn’t have a happy family to return to, or even to remember; instead, he has to find happiness on his own.
North Korean prison camps have been in existence for decades, and it’s estimated that approximately one hundred thousand prisoners live there. The camp population began to grow after 2011, when Kim Jong Eun took over from his father. According to South Korean intelligence, there are six camps, the biggest of which covers more ground than Los Angeles. Some lucky prisoners are allowed to leave, provided that they can prove their loyalty, but the rest are worked to death.
North Korean prison camps are (at least according to survivors like Shin) nightmarish places—and yet, as Harden points out again and again, most powerful people around the world aren’t aware of their existence, or seem indifferent to doing anything to get rid of them.
Shin’s camp, Camp 14, has a reputation for being the toughest in North Korea. There are dozens of eyewitnesses from North Korean labor camps, including former guards and an escaped colonel, living around the world. These eyewitnesses have reported that a few prisoners are publicly killed each year, and dozens more are killed in secret. Prisoners are forced to mine, sew, or farm, receiving little food. Few survive beyond the age of fifty, and it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands have died in the camps so far. Most prisoners were brought there without a trial, and wrongdoers’ entire families “through three generations” are brought to the camp, too.
In a way, the North Korean prison camps function like extreme versions of the North Korean state: a small handful of powerful, militarized figures rule the population with regular displays of force while starving the prisoners and preventing them from having any contact whatsoever with the outside world. According to Harden, the threat of being sent to a prison camp hangs over every North Korean’s life: furthermore, the Kim dynasty has further discouraged rebellion by punishing the people’s entire families.
Blaine Harden first met Shin in 2008, in downtown Seoul. With a translator’s help, Shin told Harden about watching his mother’s hanging. He also mentioned that he’d never heard the word “love,” even from his mother—a woman he still hated. At the time, he was living in abject poverty in South Korea; he’d written a memoir about his time in the camps, but it hadn’t received much attention. Harden had written about imploding states for the New York Times and the Washington Post, and he was curious about how the Kim family used terror to control its people.
Blaine Harden, the author of this book, was interested in talking to Shin for two reasons: first, his natural sympathies for Shin; second, his general, more abstract interest in “imploding states.” North Korea, it’s often predicted, will collapse within the next few years: the Kim dynasty doesn’t have enough power to control its population for much longer.
Before meeting Shin, Harden had been unable to learn much about North Korea. The country ensured that all visitors be shown little to nothing about North Korean society. But after meeting Shin, Harden published an article for the Post, using Shin’s accounts of life in North Korea’s prison camps. The story sparked widespread outrage—people emailed Harden, asking how the U.S. could allow the camps to exist. One couple read the article and offered to adopt Shin; another woman read the story and later fell in love with Shin.
Harden played a critical role in broadcasting the news about North Korean prison camps: his article for the Washington Post brought thousands of powerful people’s attention to the issue. But although Harden’s article outraged lots of people, it didn’t really result in any changes in government policy in the United States. As Harden well knows, freeing the North Korean prison camp population isn’t a high priority for American politicians.
Following the article, Harden decided that he wanted to write a book about Shin’s experiences. Shin took a long time to decide if he was interested in working with Harden, however. In the end he said yes, and made himself available for long interviews, in return for which he and Harden would split whatever profits the book earned. Harden had final control over the book’s contents, however. Previously, Shin had written a book called Escape to the Outer World, which was published in Seoul in 2007. During his interviews with Shin, however, Harden sensed that Shin seemed uncomfortable. Harden admits that he sometimes found it difficult to trust Shin, especially since he changed his story. It’s impossible to fact-check a story about a North Korean prison camp, but human rights activists report that Shin’s statements are consistent with what they’ve learned about North Korean prison camps.
In this important passage, Harden acknowledges that Shin isn’t an entirely reliable source of information about the prison camps, since he’s definitely lied in the past about his behavior. Indeed, since publishing his book, Harden learned that Shin didn’t even escape from Camp 14 at all—he escaped from Camp 18. Accuracy is especially important when writing about the North Korean prison camps, since there are no fact-checkers or other sources Harden can consult for information. Harden suggests that readers should still trust Shin, but also take his claims with a grain of salt.
It took three years for Harden to research North Korean society to provide background for his book on the camps. He spoke to South Korean human rights activists, as well as Shin’s friends and North Koreans who worked at the labor camps. Some have reported that Shin’s life was “relatively comfortable.”
Shin’s life has improved since he escaped from camp, of course, but it’s an ongoing struggle: he still feels guilty about his role in his family’s deaths, and perhaps gets involved in activism to make up for his sins.
When negotiating with the United States, North Korea has always been able to avoid altering its labor camp policies in any way—this is because labor camp reform isn’t a high priority for either North Korea or the U.S. As absurd as it sounds, North Korean camps have failed to garner international outrage in part, Harden says, because no famous figure has stepped up for the cause.
Many of the most successful human rights campaigns have big pop stars or actors to support them (e.g., Bono or Richard Gere). While this might sound silly, activist movements sometimes need charismatic figures to rouse the public from indifference and convert their outrage into concrete action.
Shin is ashamed of what he did to survive in the labor camps. He has refused to learn English, partly because he doesn’t want to repeat his story “in a language that might make him important.” However, Shin wants others to understand the horrors of the camps. “His burden,” Harden observes, “is a heavy one.”
In this chapter—an overview of Shin’s recent life—Harden never suggests that Shin has “found peace.” Instead, he suggests that Shin’s guilt is an ongoing struggle, one that may never be resolved.