Thoughts on reading Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
Have you read Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden? Actually, the full title is Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. I read it a week or so ago on my Kindle, and I can’t stop thinking about this man, Shin Dong-Hyuk, and this unforgettable book. I think most of us can recall a few “unforgettable” books, and this one is certainly on my list.
In fact, I’ll even go out on a limb here and say I think it’s . . . changed me, somehow. Now, I’m not going to give all my money to Amnesty International or fly to Seoul and release balloons with subversive messages about Kim Jong-Un. Maybe I won’t end up doing anything in response to reading this book, but I hope that’s not the case. Even though the story is difficult to read and yes, shockingly brutal at times, it didn’t depress me and make me feel insignificant in the big picture. Instead, it made it clear to me that any kind of existential struggle and questioning about the meaning (or lack thereof) of my life and choices, seems not the least bit interesting or relevant anymore. Here it is, good and evil, very little “gray area.”
I even found Camp 14 on Google Maps, for crying out loud, and that somehow made it all feel much more real and personal to me. You can find the Kaechon prison camp, too, outside the town of Bukchang.
Now, I haven’t talked much about the actual story. Here are a few facts. Oh, and that word, fact? Did it make you wonder how we know these are facts, given that the story seems almost too sick and evil to be true? Well, Shin bears the scars on his body as proof. He has held up his shirt and shown his back to cameras, rolled up his pants legs and showed the burn scars from when he crawled through the electrified fence–over the body of his friend, who didn’t make it. I think that was what made me the saddest, seeing him show his scars. It wasn’t the scars themselves, exactly. It was him having to show the scars, and knowing how painful it was for a long time, for him to even talk about his life in the prison.
He was born in the camp.
He didn’t know anything about “God” or “love.” He never felt any tenderness from his mother. In fact, he viewed her mostly as a competitor for food.
The author, Blaine Harden, says that he didn’t lose God, or lose any kind of faith. Rather, God simply didn’t exist for Shin.
He was there because his uncle managed to escape to South Korea. Yes, his uncle. The “crime” against the state must be punished by lifetime imprisonment for three generations.
Now, it is not a pretty story, obviously, and this man is still struggling to live in the world outside the camp. However, one thing in his story encourages me, as someone who aspires to the Christian life. In an interview, he talked about being concerned . . . are you ready? For the guards. Yes, the ones who tortured him and killed his family. To paraphrase, he said that he believed many of them would suffer terribly from guilt and trauma about the brutality and torture they’d inflicted on innocent people. He said he understood, now, that they were also victims, caught up in this evil system. That sounds like forgiveness to me, and in that I see the hand of God — and I remember the words, “Father, Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Here’s his Facebook page. I hope you follow him on Facebook and read Blaine Harden’s book about his “remarkable odyssey.”
Have you read the book? Even if you haven’t, what do you think? Don’t be shy, leave a reply!