One of the most important features of life in prison camp is the constant process of indoctrination. The prison guards don’t just terrorize the prisoners; they try to convert the prisoners to the camp’s warped ideology. Prisoners are told again and again that they must not keep any secrets from the guards. They’re also subjected to constant humiliation—euphemistically referred to as “ideological struggle”—which is designed to brainwash them into feeling helpless, alone, and psychologically dependent on the guards. For prisoners who’ve been brought in from the rest of North Korea, the process of constant indoctrination is somewhat effective. But for prisoners like Shin In Geun, who was born in Camp 14, it’s more than just brainwashing—it’s the only education he’s ever received. As a young man, Shin obeys the prison guards not so much because he’s made a conscious choice to do so, but because he’s been trained to do so ever since he was born. Through Shin’s experiences inside and outside of prison camp, the book studies the effects of brainwashing on a young mind, and whether brainwashing can ever be completely effective.
For the majority of Escape From Camp 14, Shin’s indoctrination seems completely effective: he behaves in exactly the way the prison guards want him and his peers to behave. In large part, Shin’s indoctrination is effective because it begins as soon as he’s born. Because he’s born inside the camp to parents who (by camp law) are barely able to spend time with him, Shin grows up learning the rules of the camp—above all, to be loyal to the prison guards. During school, he learns basic reading, writing, and arithmetic—however, the most important lesson he learns there is also the most basic: to obey authority. Shin’s only source of nourishment, praise, encouragement, and information is the camp leadership—one could even argue that the camp guards are his “parents.” As a result, he grows up completely loyal to the camp ideology, and does things that would disgust a camp outsider, like beating up little children because the guards order him to do so, and even betraying his own mother to the guards. Shin’s brainwashing is particularly effective because he doesn’t know any world other than Camp 14. Prisoners who’re brought to the camp from surrounding North Korea bring with them their own ideas about culture, morality, and politics. By contrast, Shin’s notions of what life “should” be like come from the camp itself. (Although in 2015, Shin admitted that, before fleeing to South Korea, he’d escaped from his camp twice before, meaning that he had slightly more contact with the outside than he’d let on. Nevertheless, his contact with the outside world was severely limited, and prison camp continued to be the only world he knew well.)
Even though Shin’s indoctrination seems completely effective at first, it ultimately fails to control his behavior. Shin spends years obeying the prison guards, partly because he’s been brainwashed into doing so and partly because doing so is the best way to ensure his survival at the camp. But in his late teens and early twenties, Shin tried to escape from his camp three times, succeeding on the third attempt. (Shin later admitted to the first two escape attempts; Escape From Camp 14 only acknowledges the third.) Even after two decades of excruciating torture, violence, and indoctrination, Shin continued to dream about the outside world and plot his escape from prison camp. This might suggest that brainwashing, for all the time and effort that go into it, is rarely a foolproof way to control a human being’s behavior in the long term—often, the brainwashed person’s curiosity, optimism, and desire for change can overcome even the most rigorous conditioning.
But even if Shin’s indoctrination fails to keep him from escaping from Camp 14, it continues to affect him long after he leaves the camp. As the book discusses in its final chapters, Shin struggles with some of the most basic aspects of modern life as a result of his time in prison camp. He has trouble making friends, using money, telling people he loves them, and maintaining a conversation—partly because of what the guards taught him about life, and partly because of what they didn’t teach him. In all, the book gives a mixed impression of brainwashing: it may not be strong enough to control a person’s behavior forever, but it leaves an indelible mark on the way that people see the world.
Indoctrination and Brainwashing ThemeTracker
Indoctrination and Brainwashing Quotes in Escape from Camp 14
Shin had been schooled to inform on his family and on his classmates. He won food as a reward and joined guards in beating up children he betrayed. His classmates, in turn, tattled on him and beat him up.
That evening, Shin went with his mother to an "ideological struggle" meeting, a compulsory gathering for self-criticism. Shin’s mother again fell to her knees at the meeting, as forty of her fellow farm workers followed the bowijidowoz's lead and berated her for failing to fill her work quota.
Shin said he did not expect forgiveness for what he was about to disclose. He said he had not forgiven himself. He also seemed to be trying to do something more than expiate guilt. He wanted to explain—in a way that he acknowledged would damage his credibility as a witness—how the camp had warped his character.
Shin's brother looked gaunt and frail as guards tied him to the wooden post. Three guards fired their rifles three times. Bullets snapped the rope that held his forehead to the pole. It was a bloody, brain-splattered mess of a killing, a spectacle that sickened and frightened Shin. But he thought his brother, too, had deserved it.
[Shin] told a story about his escape that was short, sketchy, sanitized—and largely incomprehensible to someone who was not steeped in the details of his life.
"My story can be very heartbreaking," he said, wrapping up the session after about fifteen minutes. "I don't want you to be depressed." He had bored and baffled his audience.
That evening, his listeners squirmed in their pews, their faces showing discomfort, disgust, anger, and shock. Some faces were stained with tears. When Shin was finished, when he told the congregation that one man, if he refuses to be silenced, could help free the tens of thousands who remain in North Korean labor camps, the church exploded in applause.
In that speech, if not yet in his life, Shin had seized control of his past.