Blaine Harden: A Stark Look Inside North Korea's Prison Camps

Searing testimony of human rights abuses in the DPRK

Blaine Harden and his new book Escape From Camp 14. (Author photo: Blake Chambliss)
Blaine Harden and his new book Escape From Camp 14. (Author photo: Blake Chambliss)

SAN FRANCISCO, July 11, 2012 — "Clinically paranoid" is a term used by psychologists to describe the mental state of the estimated 23,000 defectors from North Korea who have arrived in South Korea over the past decade.

The term hints at the challenges journalists and authors face as they try to tell the defectors' stories and pierce the defensive armor North Koreans develop as they adapt to life in a totalitarian state.

Shin Dong-hyuk had every reason to be paranoid. He was born and grew up in Camp 14, a North Korean camp for political prisoners, and expected to die there. He had no knowledge of the world outside. He had never heard of Pyongyang or Kim Jong-il, China or the United States. His world was filled with snitches, malevolent teachers and brutal prison guards. One wrong move, or failing to inform on fellow prisoners, including family, could earn Shin a beating, or worse.

Journalist and author Blaine Harden described the challenge of telling the story of Shin's life and escape to freedom in his new book, Escape from Camp 14, at a discussion here moderated by Philip Yun, executive director of the Ploughshares Fund. Asia Society Northern California co-organized the event with the World Affairs Council of Northern California.

Speaking about North Korean defectors, Harden told Yun, "They are clinically paranoid, which makes them very reluctant to talk about their lives." Harden was also struck by their complete ignorance of the outside world. "Shin was in another category. He didn't know the world was round until he was 23 years old, and someone broke the news to him."

Harden met Shin in 2005 while reporting on North Korea for the Washington Post. Harden's piece on Shin in the Post proved to be one of the most successful articles in his career with the paper. Reactions to the piece prompted Harden to pursue a book-length version of Shin's story.

One of the most shocking stories in Harden's book is when Shin sees his mother and brother executed for trying to escape. "He watched his mother die and refused to catch her eye because he hated her so much," Harden said. According to Harden, Shin viewed his mother as a competitor for food; their relationship was brutal, utilitarian and abusive. "He had a different concept of mother than I did, and it took me a long time to get my head around that."

But as Shin interacted with the South Korean community in Seoul and America that welcomed him after his escape, he learned how to be human, Harden says. Shin’s emotional evolution led to the book's central revelation, a truth that Shin had concealed until one year into his talks with Harden.

Shin revealed that he knew of his mother's plan to escape with his brother — and went to camp authorities with the information, sealing their fate.

"All of the teaching he'd learned from the guards kicked in," Harden said. "He was responsible for their deaths." Of all the jolting moments during his months of interviews with Shin, Harden said, "That was the darkest moment."

Harden notes that Shin's evolution is still ongoing and "he is still learning how to be a human being." After a short stay in the United States, Shin now lives in Seoul, where he helps other North Korean defectors.

Yun pressed Harden on what Americans and others concerned about North Korea's human rights abuses can do to help. "I have no doubt at some point North Korea is going to change," Yun said. "As a Korean American, I feel there is a responsibility to answer the question, 'What did you do when all this was happening?'"

Harden said educating the public and policymakers about the camps is a critical first step. "It's more clear every day what's going on [in North Korea]," Harden said. "There shouldn't be a member of Congress that isn't well-informed on these issues and leaning on the State Department to make this a part of every conversation with China and North Korea."

Harden has hope for the future, inspired by Shin's gradual transformation: "I think it says a lot about the potential of North Korea post-Kim dynasty, and the human spirit."

Co-sponsored by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and East-West Center Association

Reported by Jameel Naqvi

Asia Blog interview with Blaine Harden