During his time in a North Korean prison camp, Shin In Geun has one priority: survival. He has a family—a mother, a father, and a brother—but he doesn’t think of them with even the slightest affection. Indeed, he thinks of his mother as his competitor for food. As a result, Shin is completely self-interested: he’ll do whatever it takes to feed himself and stay alive. Through Shin, Escape From Camp 14 studies the difficult choices that desperate people make in order to stay alive, and the long-term consequences of living a life for which surviving is the only thing that matters.
The book suggests that, in order to survive, desperate people often sacrifice (or, in Shin’s case, never even consider) ordinary moral values. Across all human cultures, there are moral rules that encourage people to help and sympathize with other people. In prison camp, however, Shin is raised without any moral code. He grows up believing that his only purpose in life is to take care of himself; he’s even willing to snitch on his friends and family if it means earning more food. At the age of 14, he betrays his mother and brother’s escape attempt to the guards, leading to their execution. (Years after Escape From Camp 14 was published, Shin admitted that he also signed a document implicating his brother and mother in a murder.) Without approving of Shin’s harsh, self-interested worldview, Escape From Camp 14 gives readers some reason to believe that this harsh worldview really does help Shin survive in the brutal camps. It’s strongly suggested that Shin’s decision to betray his family to the guards results in his being rewarded with a transfer to the pig farm, the easiest-going section of Camp 14, where Shin earns more food and gets more rest. On the other hand, acts of kindness are rare in Camp 14: the prisoners’ priority is taking care of themselves, and they have little desire to risk their own lives by sharing their food or warm clothes with others. It’s telling that the most significant act of kindness in Camp 14 occurs when Shin has been sent to a secret underground prison. There, his cellmate, an older man named Kim Jin Myung, or Uncle, treats Shin’s wounds and entertains him with vivid stories about the outside world. Uncle treats Shin kindly because he’s got nothing to lose: he’s in prison and, it’s implied, is going to be executed very soon.
But living life according to the principles of self-interest is no guarantee of happiness, or even survival. First, and most obviously, trying to survive in a North Korean prison camp doesn’t means that you will survive: Shin and his peers betray one another in the hopes of earning more food and shorter work hours, but at the end of the day, they’re living in a place whose explicit purpose is to work its prisoners to death. Living in the camp, Shin can’t ensure his own survival; the best he can do is stall his death. Second, and more tragically, the consequences of a life of pure self-interest eventually catch up with Shin. Shin escapes from his prison camp and makes his way into Seoul and later Los Angeles, but he’s plagued with nightmares concerning his time in the camp—in particular, his decision to betray his mother and brother to the guards. Shin spends the first part of his life doing anything to survive and the second part consumed with guilt for his actions. In all, Escape From Camp 14 suggests that Shin’s life has been a tragic “lose-lose” situation: he could have behaved selflessly and died, but instead he followed his own self-interest, survived, and now lives in guilt for what he did to get by.
Survival, Self-interest, and Morality ThemeTracker
Survival, Self-interest, and Morality 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.
In writing this book, I have sometimes struggled to trust him. He misled me in our first interview about his role in the death of his mother, and he continued to do so in more than a dozen interviews. When he changed his story, I became worried about what else he might have made 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.
Accepting the guard’s word, Shin explained what his brother and mother were planning and where they were. The guard telephoned his superiors. He told Shin and Hong to go back to the dormitory and get some sleep. He would take care of everything.
It was Shin's first exposure to sustained kindness, and he was grateful beyond words. But he also found it puzzling. He had not trusted his mother to keep him from starving.
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.
Astonishing himself and his seamstresses, Shin lost his composure. He grabbed a large wrench and swung it as hard as he could, trying to crack open Gong's skull.
At the mention of his father’s name, Shin became angry. Although he had tried to repress it, the resentment he felt toward his mother and brother had grown since their deaths. It had poisoned his feelings for his father. Shin wanted nothing to do with him.
Intoxicated by what he heard from the prisoner he was supposed to betray, Shin made perhaps the first free decision of his life. He chose not to snitch.
He began thinking about escape. Park made those thoughts possible. He changed the way Shin connected with other people. Their friendship broke a lifelong pattern—stretching back to Shin's malignant relationship with his mother—of wariness and betrayal.
When they finished their noodles, the young man said his family's apartment was just around the corner, but that he was embarrassed to greet his parents wearing threadbare clothes. He asked if Shin would mind lending him his coat for a few minutes.
[Shin] was fetching water from a brook near the farm when he met two other North Korean defectors. They were hungry and cold and living in an abandoned shack in the woods not far from the pig farm. Shin asked the Chinese farmer to help them out, and he did so, but with a reluctance and a resentment that Shin was slow to notice.
The journalist wrote everything down. This was not the kind of conversation Shin was used to. He had never met a journalist. It made him anxious. After a long silence, the man asked Shin if he wanted to go to South Korea.
Shin did not have to worry about brokers, and his physical health was relatively good after a half year of rest and regular meals in the consulate in Shanghai. But his nightmares would not go away.
[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.