Escape From Camp 14: Twist on Representation

Escape from Camp 14, the incredible story of survival from a slave death camp in Korea north by Shin Dong-Hyuk told by former Washing Post journalist Blaine Harden, was a story that never really escaped me since reading it. Spieglman’s Maus gave me another chance to look at this narrative from a different perspective, with attention to things like representation and voice.

Dong-Hyuk’s story is unique. Literally.

He is the only person to have escaped and told the story of the infamous slave death camps of Korea north that Kim’s junta categorically denies and UN absolutely confirms. People who are found guilty of crimes against the state (political and ideological crimes, including attempting to escape to China) are sent to concentration camps on forced labour. These harshness of these camps differ in range, and Camp 14 is one of the death camps where prisoners are sent for life. As a “reward” for good behaviour in these camps, inmates are “married” for several days a year. Shin Dong-Hyuk was born from one of these marriages, and his crime was inheriting the sins of his parents. He never talked to the father, and he fought his mother for food as soon as he could feel hunger. Children like Dong-Hyuk are forced into child labour until they can do adult labour at 14~16, if they manage to survive that long: they are slaves bred by the (member of UN) state. He meets an older political prisoner who came out at the wrong end of the endless purges who tells him about the world outside. Inspired by stories of barbequed meat (seriously) Dong-Hyuk escapes the camp, and luckily makes it out to China finding his way into Korea. Until he leaves the camp at age 22, the only food in his life was salted cabbage soup and coarse mixed grain. Field mice that he managed to catch was the only meat he ever tasted. (I saved the best parts, go read it)

Shin Dong-Hyuk originally wrote and published an autobiographical account almost immediately after arriving in Korea. However, his coarse penmanship and lack of understanding of, essentially, the fundamentals of scientific reasoning created a narrative that was not effective in communicating with the Korean audience. However, once Blaine Harden publishes a book based on interviews and consultations with Dong-Hyuk, it becomes a critical and commercial success. With the acclaim in North America, the Korean audience loved it too.

Shin Dong-Hyuk never went to school and is not a good orator. In ways, he is like Vladek. While Art is not a primary source in telling the story of the Holocaust, he might be the more effective source, just as the journalist Blaine Harden was able to be more effective. One thing Harden does is to give multiple accounts when there are contradicting stories in the interviews. Instead of making the story less credible, this allows for a better understanding of the greater picture as details become insignificant. However, a first-hand account cannot be guilty of presenting multiple accounts of a single event.

The authenticity of Shin’s story is sometimes challenged, especially as there is no one to verify it. There is one identified defected officer who worked at a concentration camp, although not a death camp like Camp 14, and he only saw/heard about these death camps on paper. Some critics argue that the authenticity of such traumatized individual cannot be used as grounds for political action. The media of Korea north vehemently denies the existence of these camps and accuses the American and Korean governments for propaganda. As a response, Shin, Harden and his supporters challenge Kim Jung-Eun to prove otherwise. Until then, his account stands. While this is a strange logic, somehow, it makes sense here.


Works cited:

Harden, Blaine. Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. New York: Viking, 2012. Print.

7 thoughts on “Escape From Camp 14: Twist on Representation

  1. pparveen

    Hi Ed,
    Thanks for your blog post! I knew that the situation in North Korea was bad (and my knowledge on the issues surrounding that part of the world are still not extensive), but before reading your post I had no clue that there were concentration camps there!? That’s insane to consider, not to mention terrifying! Even in today’s modern world when you would think that people have evolved further than that, but I guess that history continually shows us (through the holocaust for example) the capacity for evil and harm that humans possess.
    In drawing a parallel between Vladek/Shin and Art/Harden, I agree with the points that you raise. I think that maybe Harden, like Art, was better ‘qualified’ (for lack of a better term) than Shin to effectively get his story of survival circulating and out to the public. I think that having a good story to tell is not the same as being able to tell a good story, and that’s also shown through the point that you mentioned about Shin publishing his story as soon as he got out but that version not doing well. Like when celebrities and famous figures get ghost writers to work on their memoirs and autobiographies for them — I think sometimes it just helps to have someone else’s words tell your story.

    – Piyasha

  2. CarlyB

    Great post Ed! I read Escape From Camp 14 and found it incredibly riveting. I couldn’t put it down! I think there is a definite shock value there that sells the book and keeps the reader interested, however like you mentioned it’s hard for North Korea to prove these allegations are false if there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. And based on the political ideology of their harsh communist government, it’s not hard to believe!

    I’m interested to read this book next:

  3. samcc

    Hey Ed!

    I found this post very interesting! I had heard briefly about Shin Dong-Hyuk’s story and his book before but didn’t know much about the circumstances of it’s writing. I really want to read it now!! This passage in your post particularly struck me: “his coarse penmanship and lack of understanding of, essentially, the fundamentals of scientific reasoning created a narrative that was not effective in communicating with the Korean audience. However, once Blaine Harden publishes a book based on interviews and consultations with Dong-Hyuk, it becomes a critical and commercial success. With the acclaim in North America, the Korean audience loved it too.” To me this seems significant on multiple levels. On one level, his lack of education and difficulty to express himself due to the horrendous conditions of his upbringing maybe does necessitate a witness and a recorder in the figure of Blaine Harden. At the same time Harden is the one making his story “coherent” in a way shaping it. I think it is interesting that it is described as a biography rather than an autobiography, by calling it a biography do you think this is more honest to the way it was written? I think it’s also interesting that you mention Harden gives multiple accounts when the story seems contradictory. I wonder how you think of this in terms of our class discussion on witnesses making history claims? Like when Art adds his own historical perspective (the marching band seen for example) highlighting his authorial presence – and in some sense power. Do you think Blaine is a good witness?

    1. edkoo825 Post author

      Hi Sam,
      Thanks for the reply and thoughtful questions. I wondered about some similar things, and in most cases, the answer seems to be circumstantial. Another layer I want to add to your questions is that Blaine Harden clearly wants to sell this story. He shows ambitions of the Pulitzer Prize, and the discussion of publication is present in the book. (Although this may be read as Harden being honest…)
      With regards to Shin, there is an article on Reuters today: It really goes to show that life narratives are real life events with real people.

  4. vivianwan

    Hi Ed! Thanks for your blog post this week. I think it is always interesting to think about other stories of events that occur around the world and how they hold up when say, they do not have the same political, historical, and social salience as the Holocaust. Also, I wonder if this response, as you have pointed out, to Shin’s story says something about our readership where accounts of human emotions and reactions to events may differ individual to individual (thus making each Holocaust memoir, for example, equally important and unique) as long as we can legitimate the factual evidence. In other words, this also alludes to our ethnocentrism and I wonder whether we will see the increase or decline of cultural tolerance or being able to allow difference in the world without bringing people into commonness without rejecting their testimonies.


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