What Can We Learn From an Escapee From Camp 14?

It’s hard to get your mind around the level of cruelty described in Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. The book tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk who was the first person to escape from this camp and make contact with the outside world. Born in the camp, Shin only became aware there was an outside world through a Chinese prisoner.

In the vast network of North Korean prison camps, Camp 14 had the reputation as being the most brutal. Hunger was normal, teachers were nothing more than enforcers of the camps strict rules, and torture was used to instill fear. The toxic environment prevented relationships and family members routinely informed on each other.

Shin escaped from Camp 14 at the age of 23 and found his way to South Korea, the United States, and then back to Seoul, a city that in many ways resembles the most progressive and cosmopolitan cities found anywhere in the world.

Given Shin’s life experience, it’s interesting to hear him talk about the difference between living in the prison camp and the “West”. In a 2012 documentary, Shin reflected on the nature of true freedom and happiness. Towards the end of an interview Shin said:

When I lived in the labor camp, I had to suffer a lot of pain …. But in South Korea you have to suffer when you don’t have enough money. It’s exhausting. It’s all about money. That makes it tough for me here. When I think about it, I rarely saw someone committing suicide in the camp. Life was hard and you were an inmate your whole life. But in South Korea many people attempt suicide. They die. It may look like the people here don’t want for anything. They have clothes and food. But there are more people committing suicide here than in the camp. There are news reports about that every day.

The interviewer asked, “What do you miss about the life in North Korea?” Shin got out his cell phone and started looking at it and tapping the screen before he said:

I miss the innocence and the lack of concerns I had. In the camp … I didn’t have to think about the power of money like I do in South Korea. Though I don’t miss everything from that camp …. I don’t know how else to say it: I miss my innocent heart.

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