Wednesday, January 2, 2013


"The reverse side also has a reverse side."
--Japanese proverb

Escape from Camp 14  is about the odyssey of Shin Dong-hyuk and his escape from a North Korean labor/death camp.

I missed him on 60 Minutes but the story is gripping: a national leader who punished political dissidents down to the third generation; a child born into a labor camp where, on starvation rations, for decades tens of thousands of inmates have been worked to death; the eating of insects and rats; the witnessing of a six-year-old girl beaten to death for hiding five kernels of corn; Shin's snitching out his own mother and brother (prisoners were commanded, under penalty of instant death, to spy on and report their families and friends); the seven months in a torture bunker; the witnessing of his mother and brother’s executions; the escape through an electrified fence on which his partner and friend died; the walk through China; the (inevitable) difficulty adjusting.

In spite of his gratitude to South Koreans for their asylum and help, Shin has difficulty understanding how, with such horrific suffering at their doorstep, they have not protested more loudly and widely.

Journalist Blaine Harden, author of Escape from Camp 14,  points out that the general lack of concern of South Korea for North Korean is:

a blind spot that baffles local and international human rights groups. Overwhelming evidence of continuing atrocities inside the North’s labor camps has done little to rouse the South Korean public. As the Korean Bar Association has noted “South Koreans, who publicly cherish the virtue of brotherly love, have been inexplicably stuck in a deep quagmire of indifference.”

When South Korean president Lee Myung-bak was elected in 2007, just three percent of voters named North Korea as a primary concern. They told pollsters that their primary interest was in making higher salaries…

South Koreans themselves struggle mightily to fit into their own success-obsessed, status-conscious, and education-crazed culture. Shin was attempting to find his way in a society that is singularly overworked, insecure, and stressed out. South Koreans work more, sleep less, and kill themselves at a higher rate than citizens of any other developed country...

They also view each other with a witheringly critical eye. Self-worth tends to be narrowly defined by admission to a few highly selective universities and prestigious, high-paying jobs at conglomerates like Samsung, Hyundai and LG.

“This society is unforgiving, relentless, and the competition is constant,” Andrew Eungi Kim, a sociology professor at Korea University, one of the country’s most elite schools told me. “If young people do not obtain the right credentials—they call it the ‘right spec’—they become very pessimistic. They believe they cannot get started in life. The pressure to do well in school begins to build at grade four, believe it or not, and it becomes everything to students by grade seven….

Although the suicide rate in most other wealthy countries peaked in the early 1980s, it continues to climb in South Korea, doubling since 2000. The suicide rate in 2008 was two and half [sic] times higher than in the United States and significantly higher than in nearby Japan, where suicide is deeply embedded in the culture. It seems to have spread as a kind of infectious disease exacerbated by the strains of ambition, affluence, family disintegration, and loneliness.

South Korea, in other words, sounds very much like us. The First World, in its bondage to consumerism, has contrived a life outside the camps that is eerily reminiscent of the police state inside the camps.

In the camps, people are killed by guards; outside the camps, people kill themselves. Inside, people are worked to death; outside, people work themselves to death. Inside, people see their own mothers as competition for food; outside, people see their peers, classmates, friends and the world as competition for jobs. Inside, people starve to death for lack of food; outside, people “starve” to death for connection and meaning.

After reading the book, I watched Camp 14: Total Control Zone, a documentary directed by Marc Wiese. .

Near the end, Shin reflected on his life of "freedom" in South Korea:

When it comes to my body, I live in South Korea, but in my mind I still live in the camp. I still feel I haven't quite managed to leave the camp for good. I would like to return to North Korea, my home. If it wouldn't be a labor camp any longer, I would like to live in the home where I was born. I want to farm there and live of the fruits of my own labor. Even if I would have to grow corn. [Prisoners at Camp 14 ate cabbage soup and corn three meals a day, seven days a week]. If the border to North Korea ever opens up, I want to be the first to travel back there. I want to live in the camp where I was born.

When I lived in the labor camp. I had to suffer a lot of pain. I had to go hungry and put up with beatings and punishment. because I didn't do my work well enough. 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.

Interviewer: What do you miss of the life in North Korea?

[Shin gets out a phone and starts tapping. Looking down at the screen--]

I miss the innocence and the lack of concerns I had. In the camp where I lived I had a pure heart. I did not have to think about anything. 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 miss the purity of my heart.

I don't know how else to say it. I miss my innocent heart.


  1. Heather, I've enjoyed your blog for awhile now, however this one blew me away. Incredible suffering while life in the west is just another joy ride. Truly disturbing about S.Korea and the suicide rate- however I believe God has given them ( and America) over to the true desires of their heart -in the ways you've pointed out- Obsession with money and the things of this world. I'll check out the documentary. Thanks for the posting and your eloquent commentary.

  2. I have been interested in North Korea for a little while and have read most of the main books in English on the subject. But, while I have this book on my Kindle, for some reason I haven't read it, yet!

    I did know that N. Korean refugees have a difficult time adjusting to their lives in S. Korea. And, I know that most of them wish they could go back. That longing for one's homeland is so powerful. I'm an expat in the UK, so I was able to identify to some extent, but that's nothing like involuntary exile.

  3. this says more about paradox than Eckhart could have imagined....

  4. Reminds me of Solzhenitsyn's return to Russia after 20 years in the U.S. He, too, longed for home. But at least his memory of home was more than just the Soviet gulag.

    Unbearably sad that Shin Dong-hyuk's "home" memory consists only of the horrors of that camp.

  5. Why it is we always long to go home? It seems innate. I know that for me, I long for a fantasy of what home should have been if it weren't the screwy mess that it really was. I can fool myself into confusing the reality with the fantasy. There are many ways to be in prison. Interesting the contrast of being "free" in one's mind while living in the hell of a physical, external prison, or being externally "free" but being imprisoned by one's culture and conditioned desires. If we are not already in prison, then we seem to create them for ourselves. Reminds me of the Dylan song "you gotta serve someone." Maybe that longing to go home is the longing for a freedom we can't seem to arrive at.

  6. I was introduced to Metropolitan Anthony Bloom his writing, talks and sermons two years ago at the time of my conversion to Catholicism. In this talk he makes the distinction between a longing for death as a way to escape from the challenge and difficulty of life versus a longing for death as a fulfillment of your deep desire to finally be one with Christ. Remembering death in the second sense actually can make life fuller, it can bring life back to life. I think Shin may be saying that he was able to live life more fully in prison despite its limitations and cruelties because he had constant reminders of death and this made his heart pure with respect to his actions and feelings for those around him. In other words prison provides an imposed kind of ascetic or monastic life where the virtues of simplicity, relative silence and solitude bring you closer to God and therefore your neighbor. Dying to self helps bring life to life and keeps the heart pure.

    We who have only known life in the developed world know how difficult it is to maintain this kind of mindfulness, this pureness of heart and how easy it can be to fall into despair. We live among crowds and yet feel so lonely because we take each other and the next moment of our life for granted.

  7. "Compared to what you have experienced in the way of radical misery, I have never had anything to bear in my life but minor irritations — but there are times when the worst suffering is not to suffer, and the worst affliction, not to be afflicted. Job’s comforters were worse off than he was, though they did not know it." Flannery O'Connor to Betty Hester.
    I read this quote after reading your entry...could be the South speaking to the North in Korea.

  8. Yes, "though they did not know it"....Sometimes in the prayers after the homily, my friend Fr. Terry will say, "Let us pray for the people with three cars, lots of money in the bank and a vacation home"...


I WELCOME your comments!!!