Blaine Harden’s Escape From Camp 14 is the story of a young man named Shin In Geun, who was born in a North Korean prison camp, and, it’s speculated, became the first person to escape from such a prison camp. Through Shin’s individual story, Harden also studies the modern North Korean state. Since the end of the Korean War in the late 1940s, North Korea has been under the control of the Kim family. Kim Il Sung ruled North Korea until the 1990s (as a dictator, for all intents and purposes, despite his claims of being democratically elected), and afterwards, Kim’s son Kim Jong Il took over. Since 2011, the country has been under the control of Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Eun. The Kim dynasty has ruled North Korea through a variety of tyrannical policies, but at the simplest level it uses two strategies to maintain power: first, a strong cult of personality surrounding its rulers; second, excessive military force. Throughout the book, Harden writes about the relationship between Camp 14—in some ways, a microcosm of North Korean society—and the tyrannical North Korea state. (In 2015, Shin changed his story and claimed that he’d actually spent most of his early life in Camp 18, which absorbed Camp 14 into its limits when he was about six years old—nevertheless, the most recent edition of the book revolves around Shin’s experiences in Camp 14.)
In North Korea (according to Shin and Harden’s account), the military and police control the population with the utmost brutality and prevent people from disobeying the state in any way. North Koreans can be shot or jailed for seemingly minor offenses, such as using a radio to communicate with the outside world, or questioning the divinity of the Kim family. Moreover, when someone in North Korea is punished, often their entire family, even stretching back three generations, is punished as well. As a result, many of the people in North Korean prisons and labor camps aren’t guilty of any crime other than being related to a supposed criminal. With execution or imprisonment such a fundamental part of North Korean society, many North Koreans feel they have no choice but to obey their leaders’ repressive laws. At the same time, the North Korean state’s propaganda wing tries to make its leaders appear noble, loveable, and even superhuman—convincing people that they should obey the rules out of love for authority, not just fear of it. However, as Escape From Camp 14 makes very clear, propaganda and the cult of personality can only do so much to fool people. While many North Koreans sincerely believe that the Kim dynasty is kind and loving, it’s difficult for them to feel love when they’re surrounded by evidence of the Kims’ cruelty and selfishness. The core of the North Korean state’s power is its military force, not its propaganda wing—or as the political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli wrote, it’s important for a leader to be loved and feared, but it’s more important to be feared than loved.
In Camp 14, the prisoner population is subject to the same queasy blend of violence and propaganda as the North Korean population in general. Shin and his peers live under constant threat of execution for even the smallest misdeeds—a more intense version of the danger that “free” North Koreans face every day. And although the prisoners are told very little about the Kim family, they’re told again and again to trust the prison guards—the same people who threaten to murder them. For Shin, who’s born in Camp 14, life is full of confusion. He’s been indoctrinated to trust and cooperate with the prison guards more than anyone else, and yet he lives in fear of the guards. In much the same way, the North Korean population is forced to “love” the state, and yet many people live in fear of the same state.
But there’s one key difference between Camp 14 and North Korean society in general: while the guards in Camp 14 are mostly successful in controlling their prisoners, the North Korean state is borderline incompetent at controlling its population. North Korea is an incredibly poor country. Even in the elite inner circles of the North Korean state, life is modest compared with most Western countries—the electricity is unreliable and there’s little to no hot water. As a result of the widespread poverty in North Korea, the state’s military force has become infested with corruption, to the point where many soldiers and police officers live off of bribes and kickbacks. Over the years, millions of North Koreans have risked their lives attempting to sneak out of the country into China—and it’s likely that hundreds of thousands have succeeded, often by bribing the soldiers. In short, the North Korean state is powerful, but not powerful enough to enact all its totalitarian policies—it can’t even keep its own borders secure. Camp 14 is, in many ways, what the Kim dynasty would like North Korea to be: a tyrannical, perfectly run society in which nobody dares challenge authority. After Shin becomes the first prisoner ever to escape from Camp 14 and live, he begins to see that the North Korean state, contrary to what he’d always assumed, can’t always keep its millions of people under control.
Tyranny and the North Korean State ThemeTracker
Tyranny and the North Korean State Quotes in Escape from Camp 14
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.
Without a second thought, Shin joined his classmates in thrashing Ryu.
From his office in Singapore, Kim Kwan Jin watched in early February 2003 as his colleagues stuffed twenty million dollars in cash into two heavy-duty bags and sent them, via Beijing, to Pyongyang. This was money that had been paid by international insurance companies.
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.
[North Korea] has always depended on handouts from foreign governments, and if they end, the Kim dynasty would probably collapse. Even in the best of years, it cannot feed itself. North Korea has no oil, and its economy has never been able to generate enough cash to buy sufficient fuel or food on the world market.
[Shin] was lucky: orders from on high had not yet changed the bribe-hungry behavior of the four bedraggled soldiers Shin met at guard stations along the Tumen River.
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] 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.