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Originally published Friday, April 13, 2012 at 5:31 AM

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Book review

'Escape from Camp 14': Survival and escape from a North Korean hell

"Escape from Camp 14" by Seattle journalist Blaine Harden tells the harrowing story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who grew up in a North Korean labor camp and then escaped from one of the ghastliest places on earth. Harden discusses his book Monday at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Blaine Harden

The author of "Escape from Camp 14" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5 at 800-838-3006, or at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.
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It's difficult to imagine an existence more devastating than life without hope — until you meet Shin Dong-hyuk.

The central character in Seattle journalist Blaine Harden's extraordinary new book, "Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West" (Viking, 205 pp., $26.95), reveals more in 200 pages about human darkness in the ghastliest corner of the world's cruelest dictatorship than a thousand textbooks ever could.

The child of a coupling arranged by authorities in a North Korean labor camp, Shin's youth was spent being pummeled — once he was even hung by a hook and tortured over flames — by prison guards, teachers and other children. He lived for years so close to starvation that he picked stray kernels of corn out of cow dung and ran a finger along the floor to get licks of spilled soup. Prison officials worked him so long without breaks during the North's bitter winters, he often ended the day in clothes stiffened by frozen urine. Guards dubbed such child labor "rallies of endeavor."

This part of Shin's story is shared by many. It's just daily life for the hundreds of thousands of citizens who live and die in secret gulags that the North Korean government still tries to deny exist. But it's Shin's personal revelations, the horrifying years without even a hint of human kindness, that give his story its sickening power.

Idle chatter among children is punished with beatings. (Sex among adults, except when arranged by prison guards, is a guaranteed death sentence.) Trained from birth to snitch on anyone violating prison rules, Shin and everyone around him view one another with suspicion. Parents, siblings and other children are merely rivals for food. When he watched his mother and brother executed for attempting to escape, Shin felt only anger (toward them) that authorities would now question his loyalty to the Great Leader, Kim Jong-il.

But it wasn't until Shin was tossed in a cell within his camp as a teen in the 1990s that he met another person who spoke to him as a human being. Only then did Shin get the faintest glimmer that life, for most, also includes love.

"Shin had become conscious of what he could never eat and never see," Harden writes in one of his most crushing passages. For the first time, "the filth, stink, and bleakness of the camp crushed his spirit. As he became marginally self-aware, he discovered loneliness, regret, and longing."

"Escape from Camp 14," the story of Shin's awakening, escape and new beginning, is a riveting, remarkable book that should be required reading in every high-school or college-civics class. Like "The Diary of Anne Frank" or Dith Pran's account of his flight from Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia, it's impossible to read this excruciatingly personal account of systemic monstrosities without fearing you might just swallow your own heart.

Shin's tale of survival is amazing enough, but Harden's wisdom as a writer shines on every page. A former New York Times reporter and Washington Post foreign correspondent who now works for PBS' Frontline, Harden keeps the story simple and searing. He allows Shin's story to unfold largely chronologically, so we watch the awfulness mount year by year.

We hear Shin's youthful voice as he shrugs off his role in causing others physical pain. We watch Shin come to grips with shame as he faces, publicly, his own capacity for betrayal. And we see the toll his first 23 years have left on a man who is now physically free but still coming to grips with hope.

Craig Welch is The Seattle Times environment reporter.

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