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Books and Culture

Daniel J. Flynn
Escape from Hunger
A North Korean survivor story
25 May 2012

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Viking, 224 pp., $26.95)

Explaining why socialism failed to gain traction in the United States, German academic Werner Sombart famously noted: “All socialist utopias came to nothing on roast beef and apple pie.” Fat and happy aren’t the ingredients for a socialist revolution. A century after Sombart’s observation, Shin Dong-Hyuk shows why starving and miserable aren’t the ingredients for keeping the people in a people’s republic: all socialist dystopias come to nothing on tree bark and barbecued rat. Shin’s amazing tale, inspired by the most basic human drive—hunger—is told by veteran journalist Blaine Harden in Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.

Shin is the only person born into a North Korean political prison to escape to the West. Only he can explain what it’s like to be a lifer in the Hermit Kingdom’s gulag. A victim of Kim Il Sung’s practice of inflicting the sins of the father upon the sons (and grandsons), Shin knew only the harsh existence of the work camps. Incarcerated from birth, he remained wholly ignorant of God, money, and the outside world until contact with a cosmopolitan North Korean unleashed his imagination. This man told him about China and Europe, but what really got Shin’s attention was his description of foreign dishes. As Harden writes: “Freedom, in Shin’s mind, was just another word for grilled meat.”

That’s a meal that camp-dwellers went without, except on the occasions when they captured a rat. When prisoners stole a pig, they devoured it raw, lest the aroma alert their overseers. “Every meal was the same: corn porridge, pickled cabbage, and cabbage soup,” Harden writes. “Shin ate this meal nearly every day for twenty-three years, unless he was denied food as punishment.”

An outsider’s perspective can’t help but see the food itself as punishment. Inmates picked undigested corn kernels from cow dung to eat. They warded off hunger by regurgitating their meals to eat again. They dined on sand, dirt, trees, and whatever else they could find. They risked their lives to fill their stomachs. Shin tells of a six-year-old classmate discovered with corn in her pockets. The teacher beat her to death in front of the class with a pointer. An official rule at Camp 14 instructed: “Anyone who steals or conceals any foodstuffs will be shot immediately.”

Hunger pangs are the catalyst for a pivotal moment in the book. Discovering his mother and brother eating a secret meal without him prompts a spiteful teenage Shin to reveal their conversation about escape to camp authorities. “I want a guarantee of more food,” he tells his guard-confessor. Instead, interrogators chain-hoist him by the wrists and ankles and ignite a fire beneath his sagging back. Today, a charred back testifies to the truth of Shin’s story, as do a finger sliced off as punishment for dropping a sewing machine and limbs bowed from overwork.

Regaled by descriptions of Chinese, German, and Russian delectables, Shin lets his appetite make up his mind. He would someday taste that food. “He did not thirst for freedom or political rights,” Harden writes. “He was merely hungry for meat.” On January 2, 2005, while performing forestry work on the camp’s perimeter at dusk, Shin and an accomplice made their long-planned break. His coconspirator’s electrocution on a security fence provided insulation and conducted some of the voltage away from Shin, who escaped with mere burns. He ran for two hours until he reached a barn, where he found corn, clothes, and cover. He bummed his way through North Korea and bribed his way into China.

Accustomed to the regimented life of the camps, Shin marveled at the freedom of North Koreans on the outside. Even more astonishing was China, where he listened to a radio, ate three meals of meat a day, traded a concrete floor for a mattress, and worked for pay without supervision. Shin gained asylum in South Korea by rushing into its embassy in China with the encouragement of a journalist. In the South—occupying the same peninsula as the North, yet free and prosperous where the North was repressive and impoverished—the culture shock continued. Eventually, Shin moved to the United States. Adjusting to American life continues to be difficult, though the dining is good. Harden tells of a surprise birthday party thrown for the refugee at a TGI Friday’s. “I was very moved,” Shin tells the author. “Shin was passionate about food and did his best talking in Korean and Mexican restaurants” in Southern California, Harden writes.

Shin’s adventure might have better fit the West’s conception of heroism had he struggled to free his people rather than feed himself. But it’s typically ordinary desires that lead to extraordinary heroism. An inmate jonesing for a hamburger may strike outsiders as insignificant—just as a seamstress refusing to yield a seat on the bus or a fruit vendor balking at bureaucratic harassment once did. These seemingly trivial indignities, however, sparked momentous uprisings. Perhaps it’s too early to say what the results will be of Shin’s escape.

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