One of the world's longest-operating human rights catastrophes is hiding in plain sight. Sign in to Google Earth and in seconds you can scope out six sprawling prison complexes nestled in the craggy highlands of North Korea. The prisons house an estimated 200,000 North Koreans, most of whom work 12- to 15-hour days, subsist on a starvation diet of salted cabbage and corn porridge, and have never set foot outside the electrified barbed-wire fences that encircle their lives.
Shin Dong-hyuk once toiled on the pig farms and in the garment factories of the exceptionally brutal Camp 14. He is also, by veteran foreign correspondent Blaine Harden's telling, the only person born in one of North Korea's labor camps to escape.
Alive, that is.
In "Escape From Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West," Harden chronicles Shin's amazing journey, from his very first memory -- a public execution he witnessed as a 4-year-old -- to his work with human rights advocacy groups in South Korea and the United States. Along the way, Harden draws on his years of in-depth reporting in Asia to explain the inner workings of North Korea's little-understood society.
Camp 14 is the epitome of a dog-eat-dog world. Obtaining food is a must, even if it means stealing from one's own family. As a schoolboy, "Shin took as much food as he could from his mother as often as he could." He learned early that snitching on his peers could garner an extra ration of rice, a relaxed workload or, at least, one fewer beating from the guards.
When Shin warned camp guards that his mother and brother were plotting an escape attempt, though, he wasn't spared the rod. Goons escorted him out of school for interrogation, then tortured him with metal hooks and hot coals. Shin, who was then 13, was released only to watch the executions of his mother and brother. But rather than feeling pity, horror or grief, he seethed with anger that his family would think of violating the first rule of Camp 14: "Anyone caught escaping will be shot immediately." Years would pass before Shin began to harbor escape fantasies of his own.
Shin's intrepid odyssey to the West -- which takes him under a high-voltage fence, into the heart of the black market and through rural China -- is bittersweet. Every stroke of luck that nudged Shin out of bondage is a reminder of how comprehensively the 100-year-old North Korean regime subjugates its own people.
By retelling Shin's against-all-odds exodus, Harden casts a harsh light on a moral embarrassment that has existed 12 times longer than the Nazi concentration camps. Readers won't be able to forget Shin's boyish, emancipated smile -- the new face of freedom trumping repression.
Will Wlizlo, a former writer and editor at Utne Reader, now works for Milkweed Editions.