Escape from Camp 14 (Book review)

ESCAPE from Camp 14 is a chilling true tale of one man’s escape from the only home he’d ever known – a North Korean political prison camp. 


By Blaine Harden
Pan Macmillan, $29.99

Shin’s first memory was an execution.

He was four-years-old at the time, too young to understand what was happening right in front of his eyes. He remembered the guards taking aim, firing their rifles three times.

Ten years after that first execution, Shin was back at the site where it happened – handcuffed and blindfolded – and he believed it was his time to die.

When a guard removed his blindfold, he saw the gallows and wooden poles.

But it was not Shin’s execution day – he was merely there to be a spectator. He watched as his mother and older brother were dragged to the site – one hung, the other shot dead by three guards.

As he watched them die, Shin didn’t feel sad, guilty, or even remorse. He was angry. He was angry with his mother and brother for planning an escape without him. And for leaving him to be beaten up by the guards as a result.

Fifteen years later and a free man, Shin admitted he was responsible for their executions.

Photo: Rick van Helden

Photo: Rick van Helden

Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden tells the horrifying true story of Shin Dong-hyuk’s life in a North Korean political prison camp. Shin eventually escaped, finding his way to China, South Korea, and finally to the States. But before all that, he grew up in a remarkably different world – a world no could imagine still existed in the 21st century.

Born and raised in Camp 14, Shin believed he was a sinner, the son of parents who had betrayed his country. His father’s sin was being the brother of two North Koreans who had fled to South Korea. Shin’s sin was that he was his son.

Shin knew no love. Friendship and family relationships turned into betrayal over the never-ending quest for food. Children were beaten to death if they were caught stealing. Women disappeared if they got pregnant without permission, even if they were raped by soldiers.

Starvation was a daily routine. Shin’s happiest memories of his past were when his belly was full.

At 14, he found out his mother and older brother were planning to escape the prison camp. Brought up to respect and be loyal to the camp, Shin reported their escape plan to a guard – a move that would eventually lead to their executions, and his own torture.

Years later he met Park, a new prisoner who told him of the outside world. Shin began to hope. Together they plotted their escape. Park didn’t make it. Shin did.

Now, even after escaping, his past still haunts him.

“I escaped physically,” he says “I haven’t escaped psychologically.”


Reading Escape from Camp 14, it’s easy to understand why. Gripping as the memoir is, it unveils the darkest sides of humanity – how we are capable of treating one of our own worse than animals.

And as Blaine Harden writes, what is surprising is how little is being done about it.

“High school students in America debate why Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t bomb the rail lines to Hitler’s camps,” he says.

“Their children may ask, a generation from now, why the West stared at far clearer images of (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Il’s camps, and did nothing.”

For those who don’t know much about North Korea, Escape from Camp 14 is packed with enough information to give any reader a comprehensive understanding of its history .

The book is highly-recommended as it  tells “a story unlike any other” with its integrity shinging through on every page, to quote award-winning author Barbara Demick .

But just a warning: this is not a read for the faint-hearted.

Escape from Camp 14: One man’s remarkable odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West Author Blaine HardenPublisherPan MacMillan

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