Escape from Camp 14

From the March-April 2013 issue of News & Letters:

Escape from Camp 14

Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Hardin (Viking, 2012).

The recent news out of North Korea is that Kim Jong Un, the third dictator in the Kim dynasty that has ruled North Korea since its inception in 1948, continues to explode nuclear weapons, following that with threats to use them. The state is obsessed with nuclear war capabilities even as most North Koreans live under extreme deprivation if not outright starvation. Escape from Camp 14 is the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born in a North Korean slave labor camp to escape, doing so at the age of 23 in 2005. Shin’s life is testament to the putrid essence of that militarized, state-capitalist totalitarian society.

The Kims, beginning with the “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung who ruled North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994, added a new abomination to Stalin’s and Mao’s massive use of slave labor, reeducation camps. Kim Il Sung decided to not only enslave his political opponents and those who showed any whiff of dissent from his absolute rule but to also sentence their families and offspring through three generations. Shin was born and grew up in a camp that had no reeducation function. He was only to be worked to an early death and wasn’t even deemed worthy of being subjected to state propaganda about the “Great Leader.”

What being alive meant for Shin was that others, including his family, were either mere competitors for food or armed guards whose job was to severely punish and usually execute anyone who broke the rules, especially the rule to turn in violators of the rules. “Snitching” is a pejorative which normally implies some previous mutual human relation, but here it was just a given condition of life from the start. The only assemblies allowed in the camp were for frequent public executions which were “teachable moments” that shaped Shin’s earliest memories.

Shin began to have a different kind of relationship with another human being when he was cared for by another prisoner after being severely tortured. Then when Shin himself was assigned to befriend a new prisoner, Park Yong Chul, in order to snitch on him, Shin made the fateful decision to not snitch. Thrilled with the description of foods available outside of camp, Shin developed a bond with Park.

Shin’s new friendship and experience of mutual trust with Park led to their decision to attempt an escape. Park didn’t survive, throwing Shin again into a situation where he could trust no one. He came to realize that even acts of kindness, like the offer of a job when he reached China, were motivated by greed, the exploitation of his labor.

The power of Shin’s story is his own assessment of his life as a struggle to become human. What is made painfully clear to anyone who dares read this book is that the struggle to become human never ends.

That is an especially important message for those leftists, caught in their own binary thinking and abstract revolutionism, who can support North Korea as an opposite to U.S. imperialism. As Hegel and then Marx kept making abundantly clear, the dialectic has nothing to do with subsuming the concrete, the lived experience. Rather, recognizing the dialectic in the movement of the lived experience can be a totally new beginning in human freedom.

—Ron Kelch

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