The first half of Escape From Camp 14 reads like a documentary, but that doesn't mean it isn't a page-turner. We all know, I'm sure, that North Korea is a "sealed" country - no news/information comes out of the country that isn't controlled by the state. And I'm sure most of us also know that the North Koreans have been starving for years. But how many of us know that there are "concentration-like" camps within the country? Camps where people are brutalized daily? Where the only difference between these camps and Hitler's is that no ovens exist to exterminate prisoners on a larger scale?
The prisoners in these camps are worked to death, starved and tortured. They are executed if they try to escape. They are rewarded, usually with a scrap of food, if they snitch on each other, which happens often. No one trusts no one. Parents don't trust their children. Children don't trust their parents or their fellow students. And teachers beat the kids constantly.
These camps have existed for years - with generations born into the camps that have never known freedom or what the outside world (just outside of the prison camps) is like. Shin Dong-hyuk was a prisoner by virtue of his birth only. He knows nothing about the outside world until a political prisoner shares tales of grilled meat and other foods. It is then that Shin begins to desire freedom. The freedom to eat and never be hungry again.
Shin is the only known prisoner born into a North Korean prison camp who manages to escape and tell about it. And, as Kongdan Oh, coauthor of The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, says, "Mr. Shin's story, at times painful to read, recounts his physical and psychological journey from a lifetime of imprisonment in a closed and unfeeling prison society to the joys and challenges of life in a free society where he can live like a human being." Shin says, "I am evolving from being an animal. But it is going very, very slowly. Sometimes I try to cry and laugh like other people, just to see if it feels like anything. Yet tears don't come. Laughter doesn't come."
Shin's existence within Camp 14 will shock you. Especially when you discover early on that he snitched on his mother and brother, who were planning an escape, and in return, he is tortured and then forced to watch their execution - all at the age of 14. And it only gets worse for Shin (believe it or not) until he escapes about 10 years later.