There are concentration camps in North Korea. We can see them clearly, via
"http://gizmodo.com/5842124/north-korean-death-camps-shown-in-unprecedented-detail-by-google-earth">high-resolution satellite images on Google Earth. There are six of them, according to South
Korean intelligence, and the largest is bigger than the city of Los Angeles.
Of the six, four camps are ‘complete control districts’ where ‘irredeemable’ prisoners are worked to death in gruesome conditions, under threat of starvation, torture and public execution. While
inside, they are shut off from the rest of the world so totally that those born within the high voltage barbed-wire perimeter are unaware even of who Kim Jong Il was.
The other two camps have ‘re-education zones’, from which ‘loyal’ prisoners can be released but only to spend the rest of their lives under constant state surveillance.
According to American journalist Blaine Harden — who is the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo and has specialized in ‘political implosion’ under weakened totalitarian rulers in Africa,
Eastern Europe and Asia — North Korea’s political prisons ‘have now existed twice as long as the Soviet Gulag and about twelve times longer than the Nazi concentration camps.’
Part of his investigation is how North Korea, a country poorer than Sudan, has managed to use systematic repression to sustain the regime when it seems "overripe" for collapse. Here the
post-Korean War history and political science of the world’s most closed society provide a firm context within which to understand the thrust of the book, which is biographical.
The subject of Escape From Camp 14 is
Shin Dong-Hyuk, who is the only person born in a North Korean labour camp to have ever escaped. Shin now lives on the West Coast of the United States, where he has been a senior ambassador at a
human rights group called Liberty in North Korea (LiNK).
Harden met Shin for seven rounds of interviews in translation, which built on a shorter version of his story that had run on the front page of the Post in 2008 (earning Harden a one-word email
— "Wow" — from Donald G. Graham, the chairman of the Washington Post Company).
In over 50 years of the camps’ existence, only 26 other eyewitnesses now live in the free world — of which five also agreed to be interviewed. The others’ accounts are recorded in a testimony
by the Korean Bar Association.
The living conditions in the North Korean camps are unimaginable in the truest sense, although Harden has done his best — with careful reference to the Nazi camps and survivor’s memoirs with
which readers might be more familiar — to allow us to picture how Shin and others existed. It is a skillfully researched piece of book-length journalism uncluttered, as far as seems
reasonable, with emotion.
But much of what Harden describes, particularly in the passages about the camp, is so evil that for a while it is difficult even to be moved. Because to be moved you would have to believe it. And
you would have to believe that horror on this scale is happening now — as you read — to human beings in a country that has been almost constantly in recent news.
For a while you just think this is an awful crazy story. In which newborns are bludgeoned to death, children are strung up on meat hooks through the pelvis, women are raped as a matter of course
and then murdered for becoming pregnant, and some men never see the sky. And in which the main character escapes death by disease and starvation — escapes having to eat rats and vomit to
survive — by crawling over a freshly-electrocuted corpse and walking, blood-soaked, to China.
The book’s epigram is a line from the [North] Korean Central News Agency:
"There is no ‘human rights issue’ in this country, as everyone leads the most dignified and happy life."
Later, Harden quotes from a Washington Post editorial that ran when his 2008 story broke on the newspaper’s front page:
"High school students in America debate why Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t bomb the rail lines to Hitler’s camps. Their children may ask, a generation from now, why the West stared at far
clearer images of Kim Jong Il’s camps, and did nothing."
It is old now, the saying that for evil to exist, good men must do nothing. And that is what you take away, more than anything, from Harden’s book. More than why the crimes against humanity
are happening in the first place, more than whose responsibility it is to stop them, the question is why — for the sake not of politics but of mankind — is nobody in power doing
anything about it?
Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden
is published by Mantle (Macmillan).