Shin Dong Hyuk is the only known escapee of a North Korean concentration camp. Born there in 1982, he spent his early years mining coal, scrounging for food, and, like his peers, snitching on prisoners who disobeyed camp rules. When he was in his twenties, Shin first heard about the existence of China, South Korea, and television from a prisoner transferred into the camp. Shin, who had starved all his life, wasn’t much interested in these things; he just wanted to hear stories about grilled meat.
Blaine Harden, the author of Escape from Camp 14, and a former Washington Post East Asian bureau chief, spent three years working with Shin and coaxing him to tell his story, which he did in short, intense intervals. "He distrusted everyone," Harden said in an interview:
"He let me march around in the darkest corners of his life for quite a long time, and it made him uncomfortable. (In the book) I used the image of a dentist drilling without anesthetics, and I think that’s a pretty accurate image.
I didn’t know how to interview him, how to get him to trust me. And sometimes he’d just leave. He’d say he was sick and leave. We had rounds in Seoul, Southern California, and in Seattle, from 2008 to 2011. He just doesn’t like to talk about the terrible things that happened, particularly the terrible events surrounding his mother, so it took time.
There’s no one like him. There’s no one else who was born in an open air cage and then moved to the West and tried to regain his humanity. I was able to understand him better after he told me the story of his first couple days outside of the North Korean prison camp where he had spent his entire life. It was the dead of winter in a small town. He saw that people could laugh, and wear bright color clothing, and could live without the fear of guards hitting them. That was his context."
Escape From Camp 14 is a fascinating look inside one of North Korea’s prison camps, part of a chain of gulags that no outsider has ever seen; an excerpt of the book, including the story of Shin watching his mother die, is available here.