Thursday 12 January 2012
Review: Escape From Camp 14
Escape From Camp 14 - Blaine Harden
Released in April 2012
Publisher: Mantle, a division of Macmillan
I'm sorry to say that this book was a bit of a disappointment!
If you are expecting a real memoir/autobiography then you will be let down. This is meant to be the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born and raised in a complete control labour camp in North Korea thought to have escaped.
Shin has apparently written his own memoir in Korean and 3000 copies were published. Whilst it was not a hit in Korea (South), I don't see why it couldn't have been translated and 'tweaked' for the global audience. Why did Harden have to retell his story? Was it for the money? Was it to ensure it was dramatised? I cannot say, obviously, but knowing that a work written entirely by Shin exists does taint this read.
Not only does the above somewhat ruin the book, the fact that it is not exclusively his story does the same. Again, if you are expecting a pure memoir you will be disappointed. I'd say that only about 60 - 65% of the book is about Shin's life. The rest sets the scene, provides information on North Korea, the context of Shin's story and opinions of experts and other defectors on the country, defectors in general etc etc. Whilst this of course is helpful as I knew very very little about North Korea, it left me feeling let down with this 'memoir'.
It is undoubtedly a very interesting and educational book. It sends out an important message that education can lead to freedom. It tells you that money does actually mean more than you'd like to think, and it reinforces that the world is a cruel, hard and ugly place for those deemed 'different'.
What surprised me the most was the life of South Koreans. I know this book is meant to educate the reader about the horrible lives led by those who are 'free' in North Korea and those who live in labour camps, however, the facts and stats about South Korea shocked me. The knowledge that North Korea is a horrid place to live is not news and I'd always assumed that South Korea was as nice a place to live as anywhere else, particularly in comparison to its Northern neighbours. But the fact that South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world shocked me (and it's not defectors from the North who make up the numbers). The pressure on South Korean's to be the most intelligent, the richest and the most cultured is astounding. Also, the portrayal of South Korean's complete lack of empathy and sympathy for North defectors was interesting. You would think that more would be welcoming to those that have suffered and are so similar, this doesn't seem to be the case when it comes to a large majority.
It was rather uplifting in the end that Shin did successfully escape and move to the free west. However, it is sad to read that Shin still leads an unhappy and troubled life as he finds adjusting to the outside world a slow and arduous task. But there is hope!
I wish Shin well