In 2008, the reporter Blaine Harden met with a young man named Shin In Geun. Shin was a defector from North Korea, one of the most brutal, repressive states on the planet. Shin had been born in Camp 14, one of the many labor camps scattered across North Korea. There, he’d lived in nightmarish conditions for more than twenty years, eventually becoming the first known person to escape from a North Korean labor camp. Harden interviewed Shin and published an article on his experiences in the Washington Post, and he later decided to interview Shin further and publish a full-length book on Shin’s life.
Shin grew up in the confines of Camp 14, a prison for those who’d angered the North Korean state. In Camp 14, prisoners were slowly worked to death in coalmines, factories, and farms. Shin’s mother, Jang Hye Gyung, worked hard to earn her daily quota and bring home food for Shin; however, Shin viewed her as a mere competitor for food, and never felt any love for her. For her part, Jang treated Shin coldly, and often beat him. Shin was raised to be more loyal to the camp’s guards than to his own family. He believed that anyone who disobeyed the guards deserved to be shot, and knew that by ratting out his peers, he could win the guards’ respect and earn some extra food for himself.
Camp 14 was always going through a food crisis—much like North Korea in general. Under the Kim dynasty, which began in the late 1940s, North Korea became a collectivized economy, controlled by a strong leader who ruled through military force and a cult of personality. During most of Shin’s time in Camp 14, North Korea was run by Kim Jong Il, the son of his predecessor, Kim Il Sung. While much of his country starved, Kim lived a luxurious life. He accepted foreign aid from the United States but took the credit for giving his people food, claiming in public that the U.S. was a monstrous nation.
In the camp, Shin attended school, where he learned to read and write. However, the real purpose of school was to prepare Shin for a lifetime of obedient work. Shin was beaten when he broke the rules, and at the age of ten he began working in a mine, picking up pieces of coal. He had no real friends, since he’d been trained not to trust anyone.
At the age of thirteen, Shin came home to find his mother sitting with his older brother, Hye Geun, whom he barely knew. Shin was jealous that his mother was preparing rice (a luxury in the camp) for Hye; he slowly came to realize that they were planning to escape from the camp together. Eager for a chance to ingratiate himself with the camp’s guards, Shin ran off to find a guard. Because it was late at night, he first ran to his only friend, Hong Sung Jo, who advised him to find a night guard. Shin told the night guard what he knew about his mother’s escape plan, and the night guard assured Shin that he’d take care of everything. The next day, however, guards arrested Shin and took him to the secret prison underneath Camp 14.
For the next six months, Shin lived in the underground prison, enduring torture from the guards. Shin realized that the night guard had claimed all the credit for knowing about Shins’ mother’s escape, and the other guards believed that Shin was collaborating with his mother. Eventually, Shin was able to convince the guards to talk to Hong, the only person who could corroborate his story. Shin was then placed in a cell with an older man named Kim Jin Myung, who went by the nickname, “Uncle.” Uncle was kind to Shin, and showed him how to treat his wounds with salty cabbage. Eventually, the guards took Shin away from Uncle and put him in a room with his father, Shin Gyung Sub. Shin wasn’t close with his father—in Camp 14, prisoners were forced to marry and bear children, but afterwards, the father wasn’t allowed to spend much time with his offspring. Nevertheless, Shin’s father had been arrested under suspicion of helping his wife escape from camp. The guards brought Shin and his father out of prison and back to Camp 14, where they, along with the rest of the camp, were forced to witness the execution of Shin’s mother and brother.
As Shin grew older, he left school and began working at the camp full-time. He first worked at a pig farm for a while. There his life was easier, and he was able to eat more food than usual. However, Shin was then unexpectedly transferred to the garment factory at Camp 14. Here, he was asked to spy on a new prisoner, Park Yong Chul. Instead of snitching on Park, however, Shin became Park’s friend. Together, they decided to escape from Camp 14.
One night, Shin and Park slipped away from the rest of the prisoners and ran toward the electric fence surrounding Camp 14. Park was electrocuted as he tried to crawl through the fence—within seconds, he was dead. Undeterred, Shin crawled over Park’s body and made it out. He then wandered toward a nearby village, where he was able to steal food and a warm coat. For months, he wandered around North Korea, trying to make it to the country’s border with China.
At the end of 2005, Shin finally earned enough money to bribe North Korean soldiers at the Chinese border. At the time, North Korea was rapidly becoming a “shakedown state,” in which corruption was rampant and bribery was a way of life for many. Shin bribed a series of officers at the border checkpoints and afterwards entered China. There, he traveled around the country, trying to find work in restaurants. There is a fairly large population of North Korean defectors in China, and Shin was able to cooperate with other North Koreans and find ways of supporting himself. While working in a restaurant, he made the acquaintance of a South Korean journalist, who offered to fly him to Seoul. In Seoul, Shin became involved with human rights activists, who wanted Shin to publish the story of his time in Camp 14. Shin ended up publishing a memoir about his experiences, but he hedged and waffled on his past—he felt tremendously guilty about his role in his mother’s death, along with the other things he’d done in Camp 14.
After a stint in a South Korean resettlement center, Shin became more interested in fighting for human rights. He joined an American nonprofit called LiNK (Liberty in North Korea) and traveled to Los Angeles to speak out against the prison camps. However, Shin was still frightened of speaking honestly about his time in Camp 14, and he continued to suffer from nightmares and trauma. A kind Christian family adopted him, and he began to learn how to accept and express love for other people. He also began dating a young woman named Harim Lee; however, their relationship ended abruptly. Shin also quit his job with LiNK, saddening many of his coworkers. To this day, he continues to suffer from guilt and trauma, even though he understands how important it is that he speak out against what he witnessed at Camp 14.
In 2014, the North Korean state released a series of propaganda videos contradicting some of Shin’s claims about Camp 14. Following the release of these videos, Shin admitted that he’d been lying about parts of his past. He now claimed that he’d been born in Camp 14, but had actually grown up in the neighboring Camp 18, which absorbed Camp 14 into its limits when Shin was about six years old. Life in Camp 18 was hard, but it was less squalid and bleak than Shin had initially suggested: some prisoners were allowed to leave, and Shin grew up learning about the Kim family, contrary to what he’d earlier claimed. Shin also admitted that, in addition to informing on his mother and brother, he’d signed a document in which he claimed that his mother and brother had committed a murder. Shin had lived with his father during his teen years. Finally, he admitted that before escaping to China, he’d already escaped from his prison camp twice—the first time he was caught almost immediately, and the second time he made it to China, but was captured and sent back.
The text of Escape From Camp 14 consists of Shin’s story as he presented it to Blaine Harden between 2006 and 2012. However, Harden also discusses Shin’s recent modifications to his story in an extended foreword to the book. In the foreword, Harden argues that, although Shin isn’t perfectly trustworthy, his overall account of life in the North Korean political prison system is accurate.