Written by the journalist who interviewed him after his escape, this is a compelling story of survival. Born in a North Korean “concentration camp” environment, for supposed crimes committed by his parents, Shin never really knew anything even approaching a normal life. For him, life was simply a matter of survival. There was no loyalty or the love of family, no compassionate relationship with friends, no conversation for fear of being overheard and reported for anything said. Emotions associated with kindness were absent from his life, and he never learned to feel them. There were no technological devices, no tvs, no newspapers, no real education, no modern convenience; nothing was plentiful, not clothing or food or books. He was ignorant, not only of the outside world, but also of the world within North Korea, that existed outside the grounds of Camp 14.
He describes himself as a predator, and indeed, he was a predator. His training consisted of learning the basics of certain subjects, spying on other students and family, and obedience to the ten rules of the camp. In the camp, individuals were supposed to watch each other and report any infractions to the officers. The smallest mistake resulted in brutal punishment. Trying to escape from the Camp would result in death for the escapees and torture for the rest of the family, as they were questioned to find out if they knew about the escape plans in advance, and didn’t report them. No relationship was sacrosanct because survival depended on outsmarting the system and the next person, intent on using you to get ahead and save themselves.
Respect for each other simply did not exist. Stealing, lying, spying on each other, were just some of the behavioral patterns that lived with him, in that environment. There was constant hunger, constant cold, constant work, most often backbreaking work.
Until Shin met someone, when in the underground prison of Camp 14, where he was being held unfairly and receiving undeserved brutal punishment because his mother and brother tried to escape, he knew nothing of the real world outside of the fence. From conversations with this cellmate, he learns to trust and share ideas. From these conversations, he dreams of leaving the Camp simply to eat some good meals with meat in them, grilled meat. To someone who has not experienced the degradation and starvation of the inmates, it might be an inconceivable idea to attempt an escape, which would mean certain death if caught and torture for his father, simply to eat! But to Shin, it was monumental and the idea developed his obsession to escape. He had been starved for so long, the thought of good food was tantalizing.
Defying reality and the odds, he did escape. With him he carried relief, no guilt, no shame. He felt his past behavior was justified. His snitching on his family and others meant nothing to him. It was what he was trained to do. He did not really know or understand human emotions, and he really did not harbor that much anger towards the system or the guards that abused him. He bore much more hatred and anger toward his mother for what she had put him through. He never trusted her to care for him, even while he stole her share of food, allowing her to go hungry. He believed that the guards were doing their duty, but his mother had put him at risk with her attempted escape. He was jealous of his brother, he was furious with his mom, he resented his father.
In the camp, they saw each other very rarely. Family visits were strictly regulated for all the inmates. He was raised to be someone who reported the crimes of others, perhaps real, perhaps imaginary, preying on others for what he needed, spying on others in order to survive because survival was of the utmost importance, and that is what he did; he became a survival machine. Until he met the man in the underground prison and learned that some people do care for each other and can be trusted, he had no other desire.
When he was in the free world, at last, he had difficulty accepting it and adjusting to it. He had to learn to feel. He wasn’t always easy to deal with or approach. He feels physically free, but he is a prisoner of himself, right now. He has to relearn how to be with people and how to help them find out about the plight of those in North Korea. He hopes to bring about a positive change for those still suffering.
The book had a lot of information between its covers. It is easy to listen to and hard to swallow all of the brutality. However, the descriptions of some of the events regarding his imprisonment and his escape were a bit too thin and sketchy for me. I would have liked the experiences to have been developed more fully, albeit without too much emotion since Shin was incapable of feeling or conveying it.