It is an irony of political history that all communist totalitarian regimes in the world have claimed legitimacy from a professed concern for the common people and their welfare, the supposed 'greatest good of the greatest number'. The greater irony, however - and an unrelieved tragedy - is the fact that this professed altruistic concern has invariably been manifest through repression, in varying degrees of brutality, of the very people supposedly being served by these regimes. The post-war twentieth century gave us the Siberian gulags under Stalin, and the Chinese variants under Mao, especially in the Cultural Revolution years 1968-76. These are the well known examples.
Yet, in time, the large scale shifting of economic balances withered the Marxist Soviet state away (although not quite in the manner envisaged by its preceptor), and considerably modified the Maoist one. The former is history, the latter hastening slowly there.
One country, however, resolutely resisting these global tides was North Korea. A creature of Stalinist Russian sponsorship in the immediate post-war aftermath, it came into its own after the messy Korean War under the absolute dictatorship of Kim Il Sung. Consolidating his power over the years the latter became the founder of a dynasty - conveniently called the Kim family, since his succeeding sons and grandsons were all first-named Kim - which has earned itself a dubious reputation for a tyranny and repression that would probably put most other tyrannical regimes in the shade. Effectively, North Korea was turned into a police state with little contact with the outside world, virtually no development, and an abysmal human rights record. Indeed, there were no human rights to speak of.
The 'enemies of the state' (a tiresomely familiar phrase), of whom there were millions since the definition was arbitrary, were put into 'labour camps', the now infamous North Korean gulags, from which escape was well-nigh impossible, since even contemplation thereof was punishable by death. Most lived and died in their benighted captivity.
However, almost as if to prove the rule, there were a bare handful who escaped to freedom against all odds and lived to reveal the horrors of their lives.
One such was Shin Dong-hyuk, whose incredible story is told here in Blaine Harden's book.
Shin Dong-hyuk was a child conceived and born in captivity. His parents, inmates of Camp 14, had been 'given' to each other as mates by their guards as a reward for some 'good behaviour' - the latter usually being an euphemism for carrying tales on their fellow inmates. Since neither consensual sex nor marriage was permitted - the penalty for these being death again - this concession to Shin's parents was high favour indeed.
Even granting that a punitive labour camp could hardly be a holiday resort the conditions in Camp 14 were something exceptional. The brutality of the guards and minders - these included virtually everyone in some authority or other - was indiscriminate and absolute, with no considerations of youth or age. Since hunger was the most primal instinct, the camp regime kept its denizens in a state of perpetual, dehumanising hunger. The only food was corn and cabbage in portions which kept them barely alive: the slightly lucky ones stole from others and got away, the less so were beaten mercilessly, often to death. The normal human values of the civilized world meant nothing here. Shin remembers often eating his mother's lunch in addition to his own: when she returned from work to find her lunch gone she thrashed him with a hoe, a shovel or whatever was handy. Often her cruelty was as bad as that of the guards. As for his father, Shin never saw much of him. The family as an emotional unit as understood elsewhere did not exist here.
School meant nothing more than the most basic alphabet, and indoctrination with the principles of the 'Great Leader' (Kim Il Sung), followed by 'struggle sessions', community confessions of one's supposed failings. Education wasn't the motive: the children were in no doubt that they were being groomed for hard labour and nothing else. The teachers were just guards in another guise, with classroom brutality being the norm. Often pupils would be exhorted to mete out mindlessly bestial punishments to their own number.
Exposure to torture and debasing cruelty inured the children to them: they accepted them impassively. Shin grows to manhood in this culture of extreme horror.
The turning point in Shin's life comes, ironically enough, through an act of betrayal. Eavesdropping on escape plans being hatched by his mother and his elder brother he leaks the information to the guards in the hope of some reward, or at least amelioration of his condition. Instead, he finds himself in the camp's notorious underground prison after the usual beating. He is also made to witness the now foregone execution of his mother and brother. Much after, he learns that the very guard he had squealed to had wanted to take credit for discovering those escape plans and Shin had been made a party to the conspiracy.
But Providence was, for once, unaccountably on his side. The truth evidently had reached higher quarters and he was released after some months (Note: this was release from the prison, not the camp itself). Assigned to the camp's garment factory which turned out military uniforms, he acquires a skill and reputation for repairing sewing machines, and here he meets Park Yong Chul, another prisoner, an elderly, paternal man of superior accomplishments who had once been someone important in Pyongyang, and who had seen the outside world. Together they form an almost filial bond (uncannily reminiscent of Edmond Dantès and the Abbé Faria, even in the shared vision) and together they plan escape, Shin now spurred by dreams of the world beyond the electric fence. And again, like in Dumas's tale, the older man dies while the younger gets away.
Blaine Harden, a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post in Northeast Asia first met Shin at a lunch in Seoul in 2008. The resulting article in the Post virtually opened the floodgates of American sympathy and help for Shin; but more importantly, it opened the West's eyes to the unbridled brutality of the North Korean state. Given the public outcry and the response to Shin's barely outlined story in the article, Harden decided to embark on a book to tell the story in full.
Shin had, curiously enough, kept a journal after his escape, and using this and Shin's oral narratives - reluctantly dragged out of him, since he was not willing to talk about his degrading and shameful past - Harden gives us a book for which the adjective 'shocking' would be a shocking understatement. If the cliché 'man's inhumanity to man' has been used often enough for history's periodic savageries, this book disturbingly reveals that North Korea defines a new paradigm in this unedifying endeavour.