Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

21 April, 2012

After Reading "Escape from Camp 14"

By Aaron
21 April, 2012

Fantasy vs. Reality

In reading Escape from Camp 14, Shin Dong-hyuk's account of his life and escape from North Korea's most notorious prison camp, one is left with two competing thoughts. The first is "good lord, I hope the North Korean regime collapses sooner rather than later." The second is, "good lord, if the North Korean regime collapses, how will South Korean society handle folks like Shin Dong-hyuk?" For most readers, however, such larger questions of geo-politics will be secondary to - or entirely eclipsed by - the sheer human drama of the story. Regardless, this book will hang with you for a while and is likely to provoke in the reader more questions than firm convictions about the future of the Korean peninsula.

Shin Dong-hyuk gained fame when he arrived in South Korea in 2005 as the first North Korean known to have escaped the country after being born in its horrid prison camps. Everything about his life in North Korea, beginning from conception, was owned and controlled by the state, his parents having been thrown together in marriage by prison guards as a reward for their good behavior. Growing up, Shin rarely saw his father and would eventually witness the execution of his own mother and brother after they tried to escape (an attempt for which Shin himself endured severe torture). Not that family affection had a place in prison life:

During his years in the camp [Shin] said he had never once heard the word “love,” certainly not from his mother, a woman he continued to despise, even in death. He had heard about the concept of forgiveness in a South Korean church, but it confused him. To ask for forgiveness in Camp 14, he said, was “to beg not to be punished.”

Is it any wonder that a person so deprived of such basic human emotions would eventually have trouble adapting to life beyond the prison fences and, eventually, in South Korea?

Even by the standards of North Korea, Shin was cut off from the outside world. At Camp 14, where the North sends its most ideologically "hopeless” citizens, prisoners are not even considered worthy of learning the state's official propaganda and are instead taught only such rudiments of reading and counting as are necessary to their future camp labors. As a result, the young Shin had only a vague idea of who dictator Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, were, and to this day he still hasn’t quite mastered multiplication and division. This ignorance of the world extended even to the trivialities of human life: it wasn't until he was in his 20s and had escaped into China that Shin saw a soccer ball for the first time.

As lost causes in the eyes of the North Korean state, the prisoners of Camp 14 are nothing more than expendable human labor - slaves, to put the finest possible point on it. The prisoners begin performing back-breaking labor – mining coal, building dams, tilling garden plots - while still children and work until they keel over from exhaustion or, all too often, until they are beaten to death or shot by prison guards for reasons ranging from attempted escape to the guard's bad mood. Such executions are so much the norm that, as Shin notes, when he witnessed a six year-old female classmate beaten to death in front of the class for having a few kernels of corn in her pocket, he felt no shock or terror, only understanding. As the book's author, Blaine Harden, puts it:

[Shin] had been trained by guards and teachers to believe that every time he was beaten, he deserved it - because of the treasonous blood he had inherited from his parents. The girl was no different. Shin thought her punishment was just and fair, and he never became angry with his teacher for killing her. He believed his classmates felt the same way.

Not surprisingly, Shin's transition to life outside of of the gulag has been bumpy, to say the least, as he's struggled with matters as big as love and trust as well as the more mundane aspects of daily life like keeping a job and managing money, none of which is made easier by what must be one of the most intense cases of post-traumatic stress disorder imaginable.

To be sure, not all North Koreans are as psychologically and physically damaged as Shin, but as I’ve written before, if and when reunification occurs, the Korean notion of 우리민족 ("one blood, one race") will quickly be exposed as the fiction that it is. As a result of decades of malnourishment, North Koreans are, on average, 12 centimeters shorter than their counterparts south of the 38th parallel. And even if such nutritional deficiencies have not had a lasting and negative impact on cognitive abilities (which they almost certainly have), the lousy educational system of the North will leave entire generations of North Koreans ill-equipped for a life the fast lane of capitalism where South Korea travels. South Koreans may pay lip service to the “one race” idea, but this will likely dry up when an underclass of 25 million North Koreans comes knocking at reunification’s door. Indeed, even as North Koreans continue to suffer under the nastiest leftover of the Cold War, South Koreans are, by and large, remarkably disinterested in the suffering of their supposed brethren.

Nations and cultures are as much, if not more, the products of their shared virtues and common expectations as they are of ethnicity, and sixty-plus years of division have sent the two Koreas down radically divergent paths. Thus, while North and South Koreans share a certain genetic background, reunification will in effect be a combination of two wildly different attitudes toward the world. Not all North Koreans will be as difficult to integrate as those from the prison camps, but if the woes of the current population of North Koreans living in South Korea is any indication, the peninsula is in a for a rough post-reunification ride.

There is, however, a chance – slight, to be sure, but non-zero – that the reunification scenario will simply never come to pass. Speaking at the Royal Asiatic Society on 10 April, 2012, North Korea expert Andrei Lankov noted that, while young South Koreans say all the politically-correct things about reunification, they typically qualify their wish for One Korea by saying that it should happen gradually – over a period of, say, 50 or 75 years, which is to say, essentially, never.
According to Lankov, it’s only a matter of time before a gutsy South Korean politician steps forward and suggests that perhaps reunification should not be the goal after all. Once this unspeakable idea has been spoken, an honest conversation can begin about such questions as “In the event of a North Korean collapse, what should the South’s role be?” and “Just how much extra are South Koreans willing to pay in taxes and social strife to back up their ‘one race’ claim?”  Give North Korea another 10-20 years to fester in its own juices and the answer to these questions could become “nothing” and “nothing,” or at least, nothing that would endanger the swell life that South Koreans have built for themselves over the past 50 years. 
And here we have a topic that few people - if anyone - has bothered to discuss: what would the future of a post-Kim, independent North Korea (that is, a North Korea separate from the South but freed from the grip of the current regime) look like? And what would it mean for those who, unlike Shin Dong-hyuk, have not managed to escape the North Korean nightmare?