North Korea has been one of the biggest issues in the news. Trump has used harsh rhetoric against the regime and they have fired back touting their supposed nuclear prowess.
Whenever there is a current event instead of pretending like I know everything, I make an effort to learn more about an issue. This lead me to Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden.
This book is not a plain historical or political analysis of the country. Rather, it is a story of one boy’s childhood in a North Korean gulag and his ultimate escape.
What is it Like in a North Korean Labor Camp?
There are six known concentration camps in North Korea. The subject of this book, Shin, is born in what is dubbed Camp 14. As a result of North Korean law, three generations of a family are sentenced to hard labor in the camps if an individual commits a crime. Shin’s existence in the camp was due to a relative fighting for South Korea during the Korean war. A man he never met was somehow responsible for his miserable existence.
This is completely irrational, though not much reason exists in these camps or the country as a whole. People are beaten regularly. They work 14 hour days. They eat mush, if they are lucky, and haven’t had their rations reduced. Shin recalled that he would regularly eat rats. In desperate times, he would pick undigested colonels of corn out of cow dung and eat them.
Torture is also endemic. After Shin reported his mother’s and brother’s attempts to escape from the camp (Snitching is encouraged, better yet demanded of prisoners), he was not rewarded for his honesty, but instead sentenced to months in prison as a young boy. There he was regularly tortured, beaten, and starved.
These camps are on step above the extermination camps in Nazi Germany. Yet, some of these prisoners may wish they were executed instead of living life in such inhumane conditions.
People Adapt to Their Environments (In Both Good and Bad Ways)
As rough as life was in North Korea, Shin does not adapt so well to life outside of the country. In South Korea and the USA he has trouble socializing, working and building relationships. One particular aspect that really stood out to me was his disdain for work assignments.
After moving to California, he gets a gig as a spokesperson for a human rights organization focused on North Korea. During his tenure there, he regularly complained about the work he was assigned. This is after doing hard labor working in factories and on farms, in ungodly conditions. Despite his past, he still gets fed up with easy work in an office job.
This really highlights that people adapt to the environment they’re in. Instead of thinking about how things have been worse, or could get worse, they can only focus on the misery of the present. Granted, Shin had many psychological issues due to growing up in Camp 14, but his behavior is still indicative of human nature in general.
Is There any Hope for Change?
In light of all the threats and rhetoric coming from North Korea, many have asked what the future of the country holds. In terms of replacing the government or an uprising occurring, that is highly unlikely. North Koreans are bombarded with propaganda their whole lives and wouldn’t risk speaking out against the state, let alone rebelling against it.
The best hope for change in the country is to break down barriers of trade and communication. There is a growing network of black market trading in the country. Goods flow in from China and South Korea and North Koreans want to get their hands on them. Bartering occurs and an organic trade system arises. Because free markets are strictly prohibited, police officers and bureaucrats want to get in on the action via bribes, to supplement their meager salaries. The system is now ingrained and even with the totalitarian North Korean government taking down this system seems unlikely.
Inevitably, information about Pyongyang’s abuse and insanity will become available to people of the country. They will start to balk at their government and ignore orders. They’ll bribe police to avoid any harsh penalties. Or they’ll just escape to China. The state’s power will wane, especially as the government controlled economy flounders.
Or maybe I am being too naive and optimistic and these camps will still be standing at the end of the 21st century. One can only hope not…