ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14, by Blaine Harden. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2012. X 224 pp. hardcover. ISBN 978-0670023325. Reviewed by CanKor “Human Factor” editor Jack Kim.
For those who disbelieved, and continue to disbelieve, North Korean refugees when they first started trickling in, Shin Dong Hyuk’s story is the mother of them all. Born in a concentration camp, witness to unspeakable horrors, the protagonist of an amazing escape from a country that condemned him even before he was born. The story is, well, far too fantastic. It is unbelievable.
His story has been well documented in the media. After all, the book hit double digits on the amazon.com best seller list. According to Shin, he was born in Camp 14 to inmates of the camp, grew up there, watched his mother and brother executed, and serendipitously managed to escape not only the camp, but the DPRK itself. According to the author, Shin describes nonchalantly every day features of the camp that to those of us fortunate enough to live outside its fences, stir up Holocaust imagery: starvation, public executions, camp guards savagely beating inmates. He describes how snitching became a method of survival, to the point that he reverses previous accounts of his life in the book by admitting that this very snitching led to the execution of his mother and brother.
The life he describes is void and empty, a meaningless existence that centres around absolute subsistence living. Even in the tightly controlled DPRK, the inmates of Camp 14 are eerily treated similarly as untermensch. In fact, Shin’s account is so horrific that one has to wonder how he copes in the outside world. Elie Wiesel’s Night only describes too well the nightmares that post-Shoah Jews had to endure when they were liberated from their own version of the camps.
If Shin’s story stretches the mind of the unbeliever, for those who have met him, the truth becomes even harder to swallow. Full disclosure: I had the opportunity to spend almost a week together with Shin when he visited Toronto. By all accounts, he is quiet, he is compliant, he loves In N Out burger and is passionate about baseball. He seems so normal.
But can his story really be believed? Does the North Korean regime really treat its enemies with such unspeakable evil? Can a man who spent his whole life in what some people close to the regime have described to me as “open air detention facilities” (perhaps one could couch Auschwitz in such euphemisms) really traverse hundreds of miles through what must have been a society foreign to him with such incredible luck? If he changed his testimony once, how credible of a witness is he, really?
There are three ways to confirm this. The first is to wait for another prisoner to escape and corroborate Shin’s story. On the fortunate side, there are other prisoners from other camps, as well as former guards, who can corroborate to some extent the horrors that Shin went through in Camp 14. But the sample size is very, very small.
The second is to use what evidence is available to us to attempt to vet Shin’s story. We have the other testimony mentioned previously. We have another important tool: Google Earth. We can trace the outlines of what can only be a mass concentration of people living in isolated, fenced off areas within the DPRK – yes, the very definition of a concentration camp. Yet technology can only go so far: without the HUMINT, the human intelligence on the ground, we cannot be sure.
The third, and final method is for the regime to prove to us that Shin’s testimony is a lie. After all, if these camps do not exist, as the North Korean regime continues to say, then the regime can simply invite some independent journalists to verify that Shin and the human rights crowd is full of poppycock. After all, if the regime was willing to show CNN the military sensitive rocket back in April, what danger is there to show CNN absolutely… nothing?
Thus is the crux of the matter. If Shin has finalized his own testimony, then it is not incumbent on him to prove his story: after all, Pyongyang can easily refute the story. But instead, we have silence. We have had silence since 2008, when Shin first widely came out publicly with his story in the media.
No, the camps do not exist, so says Pyongyang.
And there lies the danger. The scuttlebutt going around human rights circles is that the kwanliso closest to the Chinese border, Camp 22, has been shut down. Some accounts have that tens of thousands of inmates were transported to other camps as part of the process; other accounts have it that the majority of these inmates were liquidated through starvation. Regardless of which version you believe, if you even believe that the camp is closed, Pyongyang did not do the right thing by releasing these prisoners. Again, if the camp is even closed.
The scary part of this all is that when accounts such as the execution-by-mass-starvation stories come out, many of us do not blink twice before assuming that the North Korean regime is capable of such horrific atrocities. We do not question whether the regime can do such things; rather we question whether that is what they chose to do. This is especially problematic when Pyongyang categorically denies the existence of these “open air detention facilities” to begin with.
For those of us who advocate engagement with the DPRK on the issue of human rights, the regime’s very denial of these horrors is, problematic, to say the least. There is absolutely no common ground, no starting point, to even start a dialogue. At least with the issue of nuclear weapons, and with humanitarian aid, there is a common starting point. Both Pyongyang and the rest of the world agree that there is a nuclear weapons program in the DPRK; both Pyongyang and the rest of the world agree that there is a serious humanitarian issue in the DPRK. The same cannot be said about human rights.
If denial is the only answer to dialogue that we get, what good is dialogue? And if dialogue cannot answer the quandary of what can only be termed as one of the worst and perhaps oldest ongoing human rights atrocities the world has ever seen, how do we go get these camps dismantled?
We can debate this all we want. The people imprisoned in the kwanliso deserve our full, honest and speedy answer.