When Blaine Harden wrote his shocking 2008 profile of Shin Dong Hyuk for the Washington Post, Shin was living in Seoul, South Korea, and already a published author. He had written Escape to the Outside World, a 2007 Korean-language account of his horrific upbringing.
Shin was born in a North Korean forced-labor camp and then found his way to freedom. There were some problems with playing back this account verbatim. So Harden’s dramatic front-page article, “North Korean Prison Camp Escapee Tells of Horrors, Worries About Those Left Behind,” took care to include a disclaimer: “Shin’s story could not be independently verified, but it has been vetted and vouched for by leading human-rights activists and members of defector organizations in Seoul,” the Post article said.
Unfortunately, the disclaimer turned out to be necessary. As Harden now acknowledges in Escape From Camp 14, his blunt, best-selling book about Shin’s life, Shin had built his own memoir upon a gigantic lie.
In his account Shin claimed to have been a helpless innocent witness to the execution of his mother and brother when Shin was only 14. He had indeed been helpless, and he had the torture marks to prove it.
But, as Harden discovered about a year into the interviewing process for this book, Shin’s original account omitted a crucial detail: He was responsible for the executions. He had snitched to a prison guard about an escape his mother and brother were planning, knowing full well that escape plans were punishable by death.
Shin admitted to Harden that he had made this trade-off to get more food and an easier job at school. And he said he had done it without regrets. He thought that his mother and brother deserved to die.
Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North KOREA to Freedom in The West
By Blaine Harden
“In writing this book, I have sometimes struggled to trust him,” Harden writes understandably in Escape From Camp 14. Harden tries to fathom a cryptic, troubled and not entirely sympathetic young man whose circumstances lend themselves to exaggeration.
What’s more, the new book uses dialogue borrowed from Shin’s disingenuous 2007 version. Escape From Camp 14 also includes simple line drawings (as Shin’s book had) that give the most traumatic parts of his story — torture, imprisonment, maiming, executions — the look of action comics. The most benign of these pictures carries this caption: “Children in the camps scavenged constantly for food, eating rats, insects and undigested kernels of corn they found in cow dung.”
Readers may well be won over by the sharp, declarative, young-adult style of Harden’s adventure writing. They will respond to urgent concern about conditions in North Korean prison camps, which are now visible via satellite photographs. And most misgivings about Escape From Camp 14 will be outweighed by the power of a fast, brutal read.
Shin did not spend his imprisonment missing love, joy, civilization or comfort, because he had never experienced such things. As the spawn of a “reward marriage” — considered “the ultimate bonus for hard work and reliable snitching” — he had no real family ties.
The book says that he regarded his mother as a rival for food and was right to do so; she once beat him with a hoe for eating her lunch. As a young child, he saw schoolmates maimed or even killed for minor transgressions and he learned to obey the camp’s totalitarian rules.