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Intense story of an alternate life,
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This review is from: Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West (Hardcover)As someone interested in the human condition on both a personal and an academic level, I find stories of unusual upbringings to be fascinating. This is a story of an unusually horrible upbringing and the light it sheds on both humanity and humans in North Korea is powerfully awful.
Shin Dong-Hyuk was born and raised in a North Korean prison camp. The "product" of a man and woman from traiterous families (NK punishes treason through three generations!!), he grew up in an environment bereft of love, compassion, and hope. Like watching a train wreck on TV, it's a squeemish but fascinating look at how a human can grow up when they are faced with constant starvation, indifference, paranoia, and the threat of very real and serious violence. In many ways, this book reminded me of the Mountain People, an anthropologist's account of a group of starving hunter-gatherers who seemed to have lost all their morals. Life at Camp 14 was just like that. The prisoners and guards (in general) seemed to have lost all their morals.
There are bright spots of hope and kindness that I won't divulge to avoid ruining the story, but generally this is a dark book about bleak topics. It's also a fascinating look into Shin Dong-Hyuk's mind as the report (Harden) tries to coax the truth out of a sometimes uncooperative subject. Not surprisingly, Shin's PTSD and learned way of life make it very difficult for him to open up and share the brutal details of his life. Not just because he had bad things done to him, but because he believes he did some very bad things himself. Which is why this book is so compelling. Not because it shows how brutal life in North Korea is (a fact that should stir more international action than it currently does). But rather because it shows both how savage people can be when they are put in the right environment and how hope and good will can still exist in those same environments. It's really fascinating to me to point out how powerful the environment can be in influencing behavior (think of the Milgram or Stanford prison studies). It is equally fascinating how a child can grow up in such a horrible environment and yet still retain a kernel of individual resiliency that offers the potential for a happier and more loving life upon escaping from that environment. It left me with a profound sense of how lucky I am to have been raised in a loving home in Canada.
So this is not just an amazing story that will inform people about an evil reality that exists for thousands of North Koreans. It's not even just an important call for action against those conditions. This book contains a deep lesson on the nature of humanity- its frailties and its resiliencies. Which makes it an excellent read and worthy of five stars.