The book begins, “His first memory is an execution.” When Shin In Geun is four years old, his mother walks him to a wheat field, where thousands of others have been rounded up by armed guards to witness a man’s execution. Shin can’t understand what the guards were saying: this man has been offered a chance to achieve “redemption” but has refused it. Then the guards shoot the man. In Camp 14, where Shin and his mother live, attending executions is mandatory for the prisoners—the guards use them as teachable moments. Shin grows up believing that anybody who disobeys the guards will be shot.
The preface begins with a shocking scene: a little child staring on as guards execute a man. Notice that Harden does not clarify when or where this scene is taking place, or why the man is being shot—with the result that readers experience the execution through the eyes of a confused child. For as long as he can remember, Shin has been trained to be obedient to authority and accept violence as a part of his life.
At fourteen, Shin returns to the wheat field, where, once again, the guards have rounded up a crowd of thousands. This time, Shin, with his father, is returning from eight months in a secret prison below Camp 14. Shin and his father have been released on the condition that they never discuss what happened to them: the guards tortured them in order to learn about the failed escape of Shin’s mother and brother. Shin has been brutally beaten, but he hasn’t confessed—he wasn’t involved in the escape, and thus had nothing to confess. At the time, Shin has never dreamed about life beyond Camp 14. He’s never heard of America or China, and he doesn’t even know what the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, looks like. Shin has been trained to inform on his family and classmates in return for food, and he’s even helped guards hurt other children.
Shin lived in Camp 14 (and, he later admitted, Camp 18) for many more years, during which he was subjected to torture and other cruelty. In part because of the way he grew up, Shin participated in the guards’ acts of violence, even beating up other kids. This raises the question of whether Shin is morally accountable for his actions. Shin might seem like a bully for hurting other children, but he’s been conditioned to do so from an early age, suggesting that he’s not fully accountable for his behavior.
That day, at the age of fourteen, Shin and his father are forced to stand in the crowd and watch as Shin’s mother and brother are killed. At the time, Shin is angry with his family for planning an escape. And, although he won’t admit it for another fifteen years, he knows he’s responsible for their deaths.
Shin lives with his guilt for playing a role in his family’s execution. Even though readers might be inclined to forgive him for betraying his family (since he was essentially brainwashed into doing so), Shin refuses to forgive himself.