BLAINE HARDEN is the author of Escape from Camp 14, which chronicles the life
of deprivation and cruelty faced by Shin Dong-hyuk, who managed to escape from
the North Korean prison camp in which he was born and raised. A former
journalist for The New York Times and the Washington Post, Harden
has long experience in covering repressive regimes.
Your book is a powerful and disturbing story that exposes the evils of a
system in which people, including children, are treated as subhuman. What
impact do you hope or expect your book to have?
BH: The purpose of the
book is to raise awareness about the long-running human rights catastrophe in
North Korea. In the United States especially, knowledge of North Korea tends to
be limited to a cartoonish image of the leadership (Kim Jong-il’s big glasses,
puffy hair; Kim Jong-un’s chubby cheeks) and stories about nuclear tests and
long-range missiles. People do not understand that North Korea is the world’s
longest-enduring totalitarian state and that the labour camps are one of the
key means of creating the terror sustaining such a state.
Will the book be published in South Korea? If so, what reception do you
BH: So far, we do not have a South Korean publisher.
But since the book was published in the United States on 29 March and became a New
York Times bestseller the following week, I have done interviews with two
of the three largest South Korean dailies – and there seems to be keen interest
in the book and in Shin’s adjustment to life outside the camp. The reporters I
spoke to suggested that a publisher would soon step forward. The reception for
the book there, I expect, will be considerably different than elsewhere because
readers know so much more about North Korea and about the labour camps. But the
power of Shin’s story – an escape adventure and a psychological examination of
a prison-bred man learning how to acquire human emotions – should be just as
appealing in South Korea as elsewhere.
When discussing North Korean defectors some South Koreans have expressed
horror and revulsion, more at the prospect of being overwhelmed by a
catastrophic flood of damaged refugees, than at the suffering in the DPRK
revealed by your book. How would you respond to them?
BH: I think Shin’s
story would force every thinking South Korean to examine his or her conscience
and reflect on Seoul’s responsibility to pay close attention to and perhaps
hasten the end of this human rights nightmare.
Shin’s escape depended on a series of coincidences that would, in fiction,
tax the credulity of the reader. In the book you mention that Shin, after
finding friendship among Christians in California, came to credit God for
helping him. Has he sustained that faith?
BH: Yes, Shin has a Christian
faith, but I don’t know how much it has become a part of the way he deals with
the trauma of being a survivor. In my reporting for the book, we did not talk
at any great length about religion. However, he does struggle to understand
some of the basic tenets of Christianity; for example, forgiveness is something
he struggles with, and the idea of grace. His discovery of God, in a Christian
sense, goes along with his discovery that mothers and sons are supposed to love
each other. He is drawn to these ideas, but still regards them as foreign and
hard to master, something like learning a very difficult foreign language and
never being comfortable with it.
In a way, even more poignant than the horrors of his gulag experience is
the story of Shin’s efforts to overcome the damage done to him as a human
being. At one point he describes himself as having a ‘dead space’ inside, and
being unable to experience the emotions he believes other people feel. He says,
‘I am evolving from being an animal.’ Has he continued to make progress in his
personal development since the book was written?
BH: He said recently in
Washington that he continues to struggle, he continues to have nightmares, and
he continues to evolve from being an animal to being human. It is not getting
much easier for him, but he shows no signs of giving up.
Your story describes a great deal of human tragedy and suffering. How does
this affect you as a person?
BH: I have seen and heard a lot of tragic
stories as a correspondent for three decades in Africa, Eastern Europe and
Asia. Shin’s story has not been traumatic for me to hear or write about, but
the depraved behaviour of the government in North Korea does make me angry. I
wrote this book – and worked very hard to get Shin’s trust and all the details
of his life – as a way of showing readers in the United States and around the
world how hideously cruel North Korea is. It is my hope that awareness will
lead to change. In any case, awareness and understanding and empathy are better
than ignorance and apathy.
While working on this book did you encounter any efforts to obstruct your
access to people or information? Did you encounter any disbelief, real or
professed, concerning the veracity of Shin’s story?
BH: Shin’s story is
incredible. It strains credulity. But it is consistent with the stories of camp
survivors, it is consistent with what human rights investigators have been
hearing for more than a decade, it is consistent with the many scars on Shin’s
body, and it is consistent with his psychological problems. North Korea denies
the camps exist, although they are clearly visible on Google Earth, and
survivors of the camps keep turning up in South Korea. So its denials are lies,
pure and simple.
has been overwhelmed by evidence such as satellite images by the thousands and
the stories of camp survivors in studies like Hidden Gulag (a new
version of which has just been released and can be found on the web at
HRNK.org). Shin’s story just happens to be the most amazing of the bunch, since
he is the only known person to have been bred and raised in a camp – and escape
to the West to talk about it.
North Korea’s gulags have historical parallels in other parts of the world,
where similar gulags were created by dictators including Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
Do you think there is anything unique about North Korea’s system of controlling
its ‘hostile classes’? Is there anything unique about the regime or the country
that has allowed this system to continue for sixty years?
BH: What is
unique about North Korea is the willingness of the government (the Kim family
dictatorship) to sustain its cruelty so long. The camps in North Korea have
existed twice as long as Stalin’s gulag and twelve times as long as the Nazi
death camps. Totalitarian states usually collapse in less than twenty years.
North Korea is the exception. Its tools of totalitarian control came out of
Stalin’s bag of tricks. But the North Korean regime has been willing and able
to use them so much longer than any other government: for six decades and counting.
Do you have any hope or expectation of positive change under the regime of
North Korea’s youthful new leader, Kim Jong-un?
BH: No. There are no
indications – yet – of substantial change.
Do you anticipate the eventual collapse of the DPRK? How would the
consequences of that collapse play out on a world scale? Do you think your book
and other exposés of the DPRK prepare for or hinder that collapse?
the state will eventually collapse. It depends mostly on what China does – as
the DPRK’s primary supplier of fuel and food and other goods. I am not sure the
collapse will be an event of world-shaking dimensions, unless it is accompanied
by massive artillery and missile attacks on South Korea and Japan. That is
possible, but I do not know if it is likely.