Source of book: Borrowed from the library
This book is a quick - but not light - read. Author Blaine Harden wrote the book based on his interviews of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only man known to have escaped from North Korea’s prison camps.
The author admits that he is uncertain about the truth of every detail. After all, he can only rely on Shin’s account for most of the story, and he has to assume that Shin is being truthful with him, which is not exactly a guarantee. However, Harden did confirm everything he could, from geographical details to information about the process of escaping to China. The details that can be confirmed were found to be true, and thus Harden believes the rest of the story to be reasonably true. (I’m thinking a bit like a lawyer on this one. In many cases, there are as many “true” stories as their are witnesses, and even truthful witnesses perceive things differently.)
Shin was born in Camp 14, to two prisoners who were allowed to marry as a reward for good behavior. Shin grew up in the camp, knowing nothing of the outside world - even North Korea - until another prisoner who had lived on the outside convinced him to escape with him. Sadly, the other prisoner died in the attempt.
There are so many disturbing things in this book that it would be fruitless to try to discuss them all. At its heart, this book is a tale of how to dehumanize humans. Shin never knows anything that most of us would be considered “normal.” All he has the luxury of doing is fighting for his next meal and his survival. The prison camps - even more so than North Korea itself - are structured to reduce humans to mere animals - or machines. The system of reward and punishment is designed to encourage snitching, and discourage relationships between prisoners. Not only was sexual contact strictly forbidden (except for rape of prisoners by the guards) and pregnancy punished by death, friendship was severely punished as well, and gatherings of more than two prisoners were also forbidden.
In addition to the dehumanizing rules, the guards were encouraged to think of the prisoners as animals. As An Myeong Chul, a former guard who later defected put it, “It was normal to beat prisoners.” After all, they were taught to think of them as “pigs and dogs.”
[Side note: this is one reason why it was so telling that a certain police officer in Ferguson was on video screaming at the protesters, “Bring it, you fucking animals!” Once you dehumanize people to that level, violence against them is inevitable. And make no mistake: if an officer is willing to do that on camera, it is because he knows the entire culture of the department supports him. He is saying out loud what the others are thinking.]
The North Korean government isn’t stupid, though. They recognize that all it takes to break a totalitarian system is two or more that can become friends and realize that there is something better.
Another thing I found interesting about the system is that the prisoners were required to attend regular “confessional” meetings, where they would confess their “sins” against the state. It was striking how much the prison camp resembled a cult - but with more military force behind it. If further proof was needed that totalitarianism is a religion, this is should suffice. (I highly recommend Raymond Aron’s excellent book, The Opium of the Intellectuals, reviewed here, which makes the case that Communism and Fascism are both religions.) I am also reminded a bit of my own cult experience, where there was a strong pressure to confess socially acceptable sins. Pride, for example, was an “okay” sin, but “lust” was not, because it would result in discipline. Likewise, the prisoners wracked their brains to come up with relatively benign “sins” against the state, like laziness, rather than anything that would result in torture.
Another interesting part of the book was the description of the sorry state of North Korea in the aftermath of the famine in the 1990s. The “approved” economy was in shambles, but a combination of foreign aid and smuggling propped up what was left. After Shin escapes from the camp, he must find a way to China. He does this by entering into the economy, described by the author as “smuggling, trading, and petty bribery.” This is the reality of a totalitarian system. Despite all attempts to suppress it, a certain sort of free market will always bubble up, always on the hideout from the government, but nonetheless robust.
The story of Shin’s attempts to assimilate into a free society is heartbreaking. The very act of learning to relate to normal people, to learn to trust and love, is largely beyond his reach. The damage is too great. (To preserve his own life, Shin snitches on his mother, leading to her death, and he is tortured anyway. It’s hard to recover from that.) The normal things we take for granted are continually foreign to Shin, and even the basics of holding a job are difficult. I couldn’t help but think of the period of adjustment after the abolition of slavery in the United States. Suddenly, those who only knew a totalitarian system in which they were property were thrown out to fend for themselves. Shin at least finds himself in a world that wishes him to succeed. Former slaves largely entered a world determined that they would fail.
One more observation, on a lighter note: Shin came to California, and became a huge fan of In-N-Out. Good taste, that.
I highly recommend this book for anyone seeking to understand North Korea and totalitarianism in general. I also might offer it in defense of the concept of evil. Ultimately, even the rulers in North Korea are impoverished by world standards, and the continued enslavement and slaughter of their people makes no logical sense. It is this tendency of the human race, to gain joy from the misery and pain of others, that makes the strongest case for the existence of evil and the fallen nature of our race.