PUBLISHED EARLIER this year, Adam Johnson's novel The Orphan Master's Son painted a fascinating portrait of North Korea, a country where truth is defined by the state even as poverty and repression harness the citizenry to a life of unimaginable hardship. Quick on the heels of that fictional triumph is Escape from Camp 14, Blaine Harden's nonfictional biography of Shin Dong-hyuk, the first person born in a North Korean prison camp ever to escape.
Harden equates North Korea's still-operating prison camps to Nazi concentration camps, noting that prisoners are regularly starved, beaten, raped, and tortured. Because he was born in a camp, Shin had no concept of life even in the rest of North Korea, much less the world as a whole. All he knew, Harden says, was survival—and paradoxically, being born in the camp may have helped on that front. "There was a fundamental difference, in [Shin's] view, between prisoners who arrived from the outside and those who were born in the camp: Many outsiders, shattered by the contrast between a comfortable past and a punishing present, could not find or maintain the will to survive. A perverse benefit of birth in the camp was a complete absence of expectations."
Harden tracks Shin's life through his early years in the camp, through his escape and his difficulty assimilating to life in the outside world. An interesting, largely unspoken throughline is Harden's efforts to vet the details of Shin's account. It's known that Shin originally lied about key details of his experience—namely, he didn't initially reveal that he betrayed his mother and brother to prison guards after he heard them planning an escape—but Harden convincingly supports Shin's claims about life in the camps with testimony from former prison guards and other escaped prisoners.
Escape is written in a workmanlike, just-the-facts-ma'am prose that utterly accords with Harden's background as a reporter for PBS' Frontline. It's a compelling account on its own, but Harden is smart to pad Shin's story with plenty of details about the region and the difficulties often faced by North Koreans who have escaped, including severe trust issues and difficulties holding down jobs and maintaining relationships. While Harden never says it outright, the meaning is clear: Just because Shin escaped doesn't mean he's going to live happily ever after.