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 to the execution of his brother and mother. Years later, after his own successful escape, Shin would recount the tragedy of their deaths — the defining moment of his life—to South Korean intelligence agents, psychiatrists, other defectors, and journalists like Harden (who reported it in a Washington Post profile of Shin) for years. “He told it consistently,” Harden explains, “he told it often, and he told it well.” However, over the course of later, intensive interviews for Escape, Shin confessed to Harden that he had consistently lied about essential elements in the story. In a statement that most defectors could probably identify with, Shin tells Harden that once he arrived in South Korea, “There were a lot of things I needed to hide.”
His brother’s botched escape and execution implicates the 14-year-old Shin, leading to ghastly coercive interrogations in an underground cell that marks the nadir of his born-in-captivity bildungsroman. Through his teenage years — thanks mostly to luck and a few Magwitch figures — Shin is given survivable work assignments and begins to learn about the world beyond the electric fence that has surrounded him since birth. The work he completes in Camp 14 can be seen as a revealing microcosm of the North Korean economy on the whole. Although there is some light industry (fixing sewing machines at a textile factory), most labor is a desperate effort to produce food and fuel. As a young child, Shin scrapes frozen excrement from the outhouse to fertilize the corn fields. At age 10, he begins working in the coalmines, and at 15, he takes a plum job building a hydroelectric dam on the Taedong River that flows from Camp 14 down to Pyongyang; this was believed to be a good job because the workers were amply fed.
Shin makes a spectacularly lucky escape from the Camp in January 2005. He rambles north through his native land in the company of fellow drifters and grifters, stealing a uniform to disguise his identity and a bag of rice to help pay the way. Once he gets up to the China border at the Tumen River, he calmly bribes the border guards with a few packs of cigarettes to let him pass uninspected. Once “safely” in China, Shin readily finds low-paying work, first with a pig farmer and then on a cattle ranch,where he feels lonelier than when he was back in Camp 14. Having saved enough cash, he travels to Beijing, and then tries his luck in a succession of Chinese cities, crisscrossing thousands of miles to Chengdu, Tianjin, Hangzhou, and finally Shanghai, sleeping in dingy Internet cafes, relying on the begrudging kindness of ethnic Korean Chinese pastors for petty cash, or simply begging on the streets. It is a kind of freedom, at least when compared to the camp.
Then, at a Korean restaurant in Shanghai, a chance conversation with a South Korean journalist leads to Shin’s swift and painless escape from China to the “safety” of South Korea. Hearing that Shin is from the DPRK, the journalist takes him,without hesitation, by taxicab, straight to the South Korean Consulate for defection. The escape is so smooth, in fact, one wonders whether this journalist, who “still does not want his name or news organization made public,” is only that.
Shin’s life in the South, however, is anything but smooth. Like the majority of North Koreans who end up there, he is miserable. He is a stranger in a strange land, even though the spoken language is nearly the same. He estimates that “only .001 percent [of South Koreans] has any real interest in North Korea” — a psychological shock to the solipsistic North Korean mind. The only people who seem to care about the North, and by extension about Shin himself, are conservative human rights activists, fundamentalist Christians, and journalists like Harden, who first interviews Shin in December 2008 for an article in the Washington Post.
Harden’s gut-wrenching book ends with a sadness that belies its grand, uplifting subtitle. Was this a “remarkable odyssey” to “freedom in the West”? Unable to assimilate in South Korea’s “success-obsessed, status-conscious, and education-crazed culture,” Shin relocates to Los Angeles to become the poster boy for North Korean human rights. Despite this, he ultimately fares better neither in work nor love in the U.S.A., and in the epilogue, titled “No Escape,” Shin is contemplating going back to South Korea.
Of this kind of slavery liberation story, one might expect a happy ending, which Harden tries to offer in the final image of Shin. The author describes him as “dressed more formally than I could remember seeing him,” while delivering a highly polished and affecting speech about North Korean human rights abuses to a Korean American Pentecostal Church in Seattle. “Shin’s speech astonished me,” Harden writes. “Compared to the diffident, incoherent speaker I had seen six months earlier in Southern California, he was unrecognizable. He had harnessed his self-loathing and used it to indict the state that had poisoned his heart and killed his family.” But in the speech itself, Shin tells the pious audience, “I escaped physically. I haven’t escaped psychologically.” The reader cannot help but wonder if Shin still feels the loneliness he did on the Chinese cattle ranch.
Escape from Camp 14 is not the first North Korean prison narrative to appear in English. Kang Chol-hwan, who escaped in 1992, told his story with the help of French writer Pierre Rigoulot in The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, which became a minor sensation in 2005 when then President George W. Bush invited him for a highly publicized tête-à-tête in the Oval Office. Another Frenchman, journalist Philippe Grangereau, served as amanuensis to Hyok Kang, who was only 12 years old when he fled in 1998. Hyok Kang told the stories of his father’s time in North Korean prisons in This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood. Most recently, a lieutenant colonel in the North Korean army — who fell afoul of the system — recounted his tale of incarceration, which included two years in Camp 14, in Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor. This year, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea also released an updated edition of the most extensive study of the camps, The Hidden Gulag by David Hawk. Based on defector interviews, the study also draws upon open-source satellite imagery being used to map out the “hidden” North Korea.
This leads us back to the epistemological problem that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Despite the enduring “black box” notion, the challenge today in understanding North Korea is not that we know nothing about it, but that “information” flowing out of its ostensibly sealed borders has grown from a trickle in the late Cold War, to a stream in the nineties, to a river today. This is precisely the source of our current problem: How to sift out the flotsam and jetsam in the constant flow of “news” reports? How do we distinguish the reliable data and real insights from the misinformation and disinformation, the solid facts from reports likely to mislead?
Much of the new information about life inside the North is being generated by North Koreans like Shin who make it to the South, where they are interrogated for weeks by South Korean intelligence services, re-educated for half a year at a sealed-off government resettlement center, and then surveyed for the rest of their lives by an eager bevy of researchers, academics, intel officers, and journalists, whose work depends on defector debriefs. Shin’s “remarkable” story, which he has told countless times, is typical in this regard, though most re-settlers do not end up with a Korean language memoir and English language biography.
There is a good deal of business and politics at play in all this storytelling. Defectors, especially educated ones, routinely expect “speaker’s fees” just to show up for a discussion with university students. And with considerable funding support from the South Korean and US governments, elite defectors have established an influential cadre of media-advocacy organizations that use their networks to smuggle information out of North Korea, as well as broadcast subversive messages north across the DMZ using short-wave radio, balloon launches, and other pre-Internet means of dissemination.
Previous works have shown how interviews with defectors can illuminate North Korean realities. Interviews with a cross-section of refugees served as the basis for Los Angeles Times correspondent Barbara Demick’s acclaimed book, Nothing to Envy, which tells a series of compelling life stories which help readers break free from thinking of North Koreans as faceless and uniform. In addition, work with defectors has been providing elusive economic data to UC San Diego’s Stephan Haggard and the Peterson Institute for International Economics’ Marcus Noland in their ongoing survey-based publications on the rise of “grassroots capitalism” in the DPRK.
Harden’s book offers further evidence of the value of defector testimony by plumbing the depths of a single escapee’s soul. However, the fact that the story of Shin Dong-hyuk hinges on the lie he convincingly told for years, alerts us to just how problematic the new “information” about North Korea is. Shin is not alone in having “a lot of things […] to hide,” nor is he alone in having felt lost and manipulated in China, Seoul, and Los Angeles, where the only people who seemed to care about him had powerful political, professional, or religious agendas. Escape from Camp 14, then, is a must-read, both for the remarkable story it tells, and for what it leaves out.