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3.0 out of 5 stars A more thorough Understanding of How Hell actually Works, April 13, 2012
This review is from: Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West (Hardcover)
This is the story of Shin Dong hyuk, an inmate born and raised in "the infamous "Camp 14" of the DPKR prison system. It is Shin's story of his life within, his escape from, and his life after, prison --as told by the author, a Washington Post reporter. Although poorly written by the author, with political analysis that sometimes is more annoying than enlightening, what is unique about this prison story is first that no one has ever told a story of what it is like to have been born, raised, and lived his entire life (and expected to die) entirely within a prison system: that is to say to have lived his entire life without ever having imagined or had knowledge or contact with an outside world? Shin did not know that there was an idea of a god, or a government, or even that North Korea was a country. All he knew was what the guards in Camp-14 taught him.

Even without the traumatic parts of Shin's story - of torture, maiming, daily executions, beatings and of the never-ending fight for food and survival (of having to eat rats, insects and even kernels of corn from cow dung, etc.) - Shin's story is unique in that it is minus a context for normal rational, moral and human calculations. In this sense, "Camp-14" constitutes a very new and special kind of hell and this book should have been a window into how that hell actually works. But this is not what the author gave us. Instead he kept trying to overlay his own political analysis over the story of Shin's existence within the prison system.

It can be said that at least the inmates of Auschwitz had previously lived normal lives and thus had as a backdrop what it once was like to have had a normal existence in a normal world. Shin, on the other hand, had no such backdrop. Raw survival and self-preservation "in the moment" were both the foreground and background to his existence. Camp-14 was the ever-present and tightly drawn boundaries constituting the totality of this existential reality. In fact, with no books to read, or people from the other side to talk to, he knew nothing of any other existence. Later, when his cellmate Park, told him that he (Park) had lived in Pyongyang, which was only 50 miles from the camp, Shin asked Park what Pyongyang was? He simply did not know (and could not imagined) that there was a world beyond the prison walls.

As a result of his hermetically sealed life in the gulag of all gulags, Shin's morality, such as it was, was completely shaped by how he would get his next meal. He even perceived his own mother and brother as being in competition with him for food. The code of the prison yard was "snitch and live for another day." That is why Shin informed on his own mother and brother about their plans to escape, and then watched without remorse as they both were executed: his mother hanged, his brother shot.

However Shin's world and his life changed when he was housed with a new inmate, Park, whom he was assigned to snitch on in exchange for better food, work assignments and accommodations. But instead of snitching on Park, who regaled him daily about what life in the "out world" was like, Shin instead became Park's friend and eventually escaped from the camp with him. And although Park was electrocuted in the escape attempt, Shin used his smoking body as insulation to get through the fence, and did eventually reach freedom. Shin was to learn that there was indeed a different world on the other side that lived by a different kind of moral code. Memories of his past lack of conscience, troubled him, and freedom with lots of food was not as easy as Shin had imagined.

Here sat a very pregnant theme that was all but completely ignored by this author. It seems that he preferred instead to emphasize and rehearse old themes bashing the debased DPRK government rather than trying to get inside the mind of one human damaged by North Korea's totalitarian system. Three stars
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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 25 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 13, 2012 10:11:19 AM PDT
cjvcounsel says:
This review would have been as effective had some details been left to the reader to discover; I would have preferred to get them experientially from my own reading. Now I ask if I really want to take the time to read it?

Posted on Apr 13, 2012 4:16:33 PM PDT
anonymous says:
I was also hoping the author would get inside of his mind, but I still want to read it.

Posted on Apr 14, 2012 3:59:00 AM PDT
HMax53 says:
Thank you for shedding light on the author's purpose. I was going to get this book after seeing the interview, but now, no.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 14, 2012 9:44:35 AM PDT
Mega Man says:
The book does get into the psyche of Shin. It's just a recount of a real story, so at some points it gives very informative situational backgrounds. It's not a work of fiction, so side "character's" motives aren't predetermined.

Posted on Apr 14, 2012 4:22:28 PM PDT
Izzy says:
North Korea is Nazi Germany all over again: when will countries agree to invade and put suffering of people there out of misery

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 14, 2012 7:55:14 PM PDT
Fair point,

In defense of my approach, it is worthwhile to note that the title already gives away the fact that he did escape. Plus, in the very first section, Shin's mother and brother are executed and he is immediately punished by his peers for snitching on them.

So, all that is left for the rest of the book is trying to understand how a mind works in such a depraved situation? That was my focus. And I think it will be the focus of anyone who reads the book.

My wife and I read it separately and discussed it over breakfast this morning. I mentioned your comment. She too thought it was fair. But if you do read the book, and I strongly recommend that you do, I think you will then understand why my revelations simply did not matter.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 14, 2012 7:57:49 PM PDT
I strongly encourage it. It is a mind boggling experience to appreciate that in the subtext of the book is the theme that the power of state secrecy, whether it is a tyranny or not is the ultimate corruption. A prison, is a prison, is a prison.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 14, 2012 8:18:07 PM PDT
No,

But as a unique laboratory of human experience and degradation, there is nothing like it in our history so far, even in what we know of the Nazi experience? Therefore as a purely theoretical exercise, it raises many fundamental questions about the limits to our humanity.

How can one write a book without even raising some of these questions?

Posted on Apr 20, 2012 8:14:28 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 20, 2012 8:15:44 AM PDT
John says:
"...he kept trying to overlay his own political analysis over the story..." What?!?

"Political analysis" is not only wholly undefined, it is a general-purpose tomato to throw, and Mr. Calhoun makes no attempt to clarify what he means by it, or what in the book it refers to.

I imagine that Mr. C is referring to the author's analysis of *economic* conditions which made conditions favorable for Shin's escape. For example, how the drying up of Soviet subsidies led to the famine, which gave rise to petty traders and a black market, guards taking bribes, and how this led to migrants moving around within North Korea without papers, and a permeable border with China. Shin escaped during the tail-end of this --just as a crack-down was beginning-- and managed to garner information from experienced migrants, some of whom had been across the border, about what to say to the border guards, etc. This discussion of economic conditions making Shin's escape possible is pertinent and the author (a contributor to The Economist) is well qualified to write about it.

Everything referred to in this review could have been learned from the newspaper article (Wall Street Journal and others), so I can't tell that the reviewer even read the book. I think the whole point was to come in late with a contrary review that stands out in a sea of 5-star reviews just to garner votes. And it worked. My complaint: it's just not fair to come and trash an important new book with a nonsensical criticism.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 21, 2012 4:40:47 AM PDT
No John,

I was referring to all of the "out of context fillers" that railed again the DPRK government" but had little to do with Shin's situation or the camp. It all seemed to me so much "out of character and detracted from the narrative.

It simply took too many words to get into details within the review. But a good point.
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