Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Man Who Escaped from Camp 14

Okay, first off, I acknowledge that I've experienced Thanksgiving in Korea, and I'm about to experience my first Christmas in Korea. I have intentions to blog about all that (we'll see what becomes of these intentions). :)

This weekend, I thought I'd write about something quite different.

Several months ago, I purchased this book and read it. It's the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who is (at the time of this post) the only known man to have escaped from a prison camp in North Korea. I highly recommend it. It's not a happy book, but it is insightful. It helped me think about how several things that I take for granted, such as the freedom to choose what I eat and to form emotional connections with other human beings. Shin Dong-hyuk had neither of those while he lived in the camp.

One thing that struck me was a confession that took place before the book was published. Initially, Shin had said one thing about his role in the deaths of his mother and brother. Later on, the story changed, and the author found out more about Shin's role in their executions. To me, it seemed that Shin's decision to not initially reveal all was connected to Shin's inability to trust people as he was growing up. He and the other prisoners lived in constant fear of being attacked, tortured, and killed by the prison guards. During his 20+ years in the camp, there were two people that he was able to form any sort of friendship with (neither of those two people were family members. One was a fellow inmate while Shin was in prison, and one was a coworker at a sewing factory). I feel like it would be very difficult to trust anyone and be honest/forthright if I had grown up in those circumstances.

On a similar note, Shin learned how to feel love long after his teenage years. With this, he also learned to feel guilt. In the camp, he did certain things out of self-preservation; years afterwards, he realized how some of those decisions resulted in death for other people. I can't imagine the burden that this poor man must carry.

Well, Shin came to Seoul for an open discussion this past weekend.

With the help of an interpreter, Shin spoke about the situation of prisoners in North Korea and encouraged the audience to raise our voices in protest of the camps. Seeing him in person was a surreal experience.

We then watched a documentary based on the book.

The documentary contained interviews with Shin as well as two former North Korean prison guards. Though I did learn some chilling insights about the callous nature in which the guards treated the prisoners, and though there were parts of the documentary that helped illustrate the conditions Shin lived in, I can't recommend this documentary as strongly as I can the book. Reasons: several longer-than-necessary pauses, and (perhaps the strongest reason) I felt like Shin's privacy was being invaded by the makers of this documentary.

I'm not sure what I was expecting from going to this discussion/movie, but my takeaway was this:

Shin must be, in every way possible, tired.

  • He must be tired from his childhood and adolescent experiences in a place where he had zero freedom.
  • He must be tired from the very risky journey he took, though it was almost ten years ago, from within the camp to outside of the camp to China to South Korea.
  • He must be tired from going from a reality where everything is dictated to him to a completely opposite where competition and materialism are the norms.
  • He must be tired of having to dig into his memory, retelling horrendous experiences in order to answer questions from people who are likely complete strangers.
  • He must be tired of the intense attention he has received. He seems to be a celebrity that had "fame" forced upon him due to his unimaginable upbringing.
In no way do I mean to minimize the suffering that is happening in the North Korean camps as I type this entry. I hope Shin's words are part of a solution to the human rights abuses happening there. 

At the same time, I hope Shin doesn't feel forced to relive his past over and over because he feels compelled by X organization to speak about them.

Most of all, I hope he's able to find some peace and meaning in his own life.

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