NORTH KOREA USUALLY SHOWS UP on the American public’s radar as little more than a macabre caricature of goose-stepping automatons hailing their Team America madman dictator Kim Jong Il, or now, his nuclear-armed twentysomething son, Kim Jong Un. This sense of North Korea as The Impossible State, as Victor Cha puts it, has infected the foreign policy establishment with a cynical sense of resignation. After all, whenever a new Korean crisis flares up, we get a cavalcade of by now all-too-familiar questions: How to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear program from developing any further, or falling into someone else’s hands? How to deter the North’s provocative actions in the region — from missile tests to military strikes on South Korea? How to improve the human rights situation in one of the world’s most isolated countries? And then, when the latest crisis ebbs without any progress in answering these questions, diplomats throw up their hands and mumble platitudes about North Korea being a “black box.”
As the “black box” cop-out suggests, the foreign policy conundrum that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is rooted in a deeper, epistemological problem. The US and South Korea will not succeed in crafting more effective policies toward the DPRK until they understand more about North Korea itself from the inside out. The key to a better knowledge of North Korea begins with a sustained process of critical reflection on how we know what we think we know, examining the sources of information and insight.
Former Washington Post bureau chief Blaine Harden’s new book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, has little to do with international relations. In fact, where the narrative of this otherwise gripping book delves into diplomacy and regional security, it falters. That said, anyone puzzled by the North Korean conundrum should read this book. By telling the story of one very unusual young man, Escape opens a unique window onto life in the DPRK. At the same time, the book inadvertently reminds us of all the things we do not know and do not pay attention to about the country surrounding this one man’s exceptional and harrowing tale.
Most of Escape takes place just north of Pyongyang in a prison camp 30 miles wide and 15 miles long, where in 1982 the book’s protagonist, Shin Dong-hyuk, was born to an inmate couple whose “reward” for good behavior was an arranged marriage. Camp 14 is a kind of hell on earth told from the perspective of a child growing up there, not unlike Roberto Benigni’s La vita è bella without the comic relief. The 15,000 inmates live in a constant state of near-starvation and perpetual terror of not only the guards, but also of one another. Violent beatings, sudden executions, and sexual abuse are daily events. Fifty-year-old men are considered elderly, and children beat one another without remorse. There is no love, nor family, nor sociability, nor trust. There are only hunger and fear, re-education through labor during the day, self-criticism sessions at night, and in between, a few hours sleep on a concrete floor.
Shin witnesses a litany of horrific things in the Camp, but the central dramatic event in his prison narrative is his elder brother’s foiled escape, leading ...read more