First published in March 2012, ‘Escape From Camp 14’ is Blaine Harden’s true story of Shin Dong-Hyuk’s escape from the hardest, cruellest and most highly protected prison/labour camp in North Korea.  A camp that to date, Shin Dong-Hyuk is the only prisoner to have ever successfully escaped.  The story that unfolds is shocking, powerful, emotive and brutally honest.  It has no feel-good factor at the end.  It’s true to life and unashamedly challenging. 

DLS Synopsis:
Shin In Geun (later known as Shin Dong-Hyuk)
s story begins when he was just a child in Camp 14.  Having been born in the No Exit labour camp, Shin knows of no other life.  His only reason for this lifelong incarceration in the vast prison camp is because of a supposed crime committed by his father - Shin Gyung Sub.  In turn, his father's crime is merely being the brother of two young men who had fled south during a fratricidal war in the Korean Peninsula.  For it is North Korean law that it takes three generations to wash away such sins.

Shin had a brutal upbringing, with a mother who showed no affection, a father he saw just five times a year, a severe lack of food that left him massively malnourished and weak, as well as heart-wrenchingly abysmal living conditions and endless forced labour.  He was also taught to snitch on anyone and everyone without question or remorse.  A trait that was ingrained into him from birth.

And so when Shin overhears his mother, Jang Hye Geun and his older brother Shin He Geun plotting to escape from the camp, Shin does the only thing that comes naturally to him.  He reports them to a night guard immediately.  And in doing so, condemns the two of them to death.  But further still, because of the selfish nature of the guard in the camp, this action (which is what has been preached to the prisoners throughout their lives), begins a descent into a torturous hell for Shin which will later dramatically alter the course of his life forever.

From near death, the seriously malnourished and excessively tortured Shin will find hope and a new desire for life.  From being curled up in terrible pain on the stone floor of a cold and cramped prison cell, Shin Dong-Hyuk will make his way through the labours of the camp and one day finally break free.  His flight, a monumental achievement of hope, stamina and single-minded determination...

DLS Review:
Blaine Harden’s retelling of Shin’s story is blunt and down to earth.  Harden is obviously ever-so-slightly a slave to hard fact and timeline’s.  He likes to show whereabouts in North Korea’s history we are when events take place for Shin – to allow the reader to have a more well-rounded understanding of how the changes in North Korea immediately affected Shin and his flight from Camp 14.

However, for the first third of the book, Harden does flip back and forth with the sequence in time a touch too much, until we land at April 1996, where the real start to the whole sequence of events that will ultimately lead to Shin’s escape first takes place.  From this moment on, the book descends into an abyss of despair and shocking mistreatment of the prisoners, which Harden lays down in a stark and powerfully factual manner.

The book continues with its message of utter cruelty and unjustified punishment under the controlling regime of Northern Korea’s ‘Dear Leader’ – Kim Jong Il.  Harden is clearly himself very moved and motivated by the true life story he is setting down on paper.  The anguish and pain, although still delivered in a very factual manner, has a wealth of feeling behind its delivery.  The realism of the story is gut-wrenchingly apparent.

Shin’s escape too is very real and utterly without the Hollywood glamour of the likes of ‘The Great Escape’ (1963) or ‘Shawshank Redemption’ (1994).  Before you know it Shin is making his way to the world outside and fleeing the mountainous area of Camp 14.  What follows then is a good number of chapters on Shin’s desperate measures for survival and his struggles with adjusting to a world outside of the cruelties of a ruthless labour camp.

As the book draws ever closer to Shin’s life as it is today (in 2012), Harden carries on with Shin’s constant struggle whilst he is living in the US, working with organisations to bring help, support and spread much needed awareness about the issues in North Korea.  The final few chapters are still hard reading, seeing Shin’s problems in adjusting to a lifestyle away from the oppression of life within a prison camp.  Here we see the stark realism of human life exposed to us once again.  Harden doesn’t try to paint Shin as some newfound saint, but instead depicts Shin as the lost and severely troubled person that he continues to be.

All in all, the book is a strong true life story that gets you in the gut, exposing a truly horrendous side to humanity that is going on to this day.  The messages are clear, the writing and prose is purposefully emotive (and deservedly so) and the sheer power of the real life story is unforgettable.

The book runs for a total of 256 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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