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Tuesday September 11, 2012

Hunger for freedom

AMERICAN journalist Blaine Harden has been in machine-gun bloodbaths in Eastern Europe and covered corruption in the Congo, but says the most powerful story he has ever reported is in his new book, Escape From Camp 14.

Published earlier this month by Viking, the book is a biography of Shin Dong-hyuk who was born in 1982 in a no-exit prison camp in North Korea, where thousands are detained for so-called political crimes.

Shin was raised under conditions of starvation and incredible brutality, taught to consider his mother a competitor for food rather than a loved family member, and escaped the camp only at age 23 – by climbing through an electric fence, insulated against the deadly current by the body of his best friend.

The book details how he walked for a month until he reached China and then South Korea, via its embassy in Shanghai. Later, he moved to California, sponsored by Americans who read a 2008 report Harden wrote about him in the Washington Post.

Shin Dong-hyuk, human rights activist, North Korean defector and escapee, demonstrates during a White House vigil at
Lafayette Park in Washington, DC, in July. Shin is the only person to have escaped from a ‘total-control zone’ grade internment
camp in North Korea and lived to tell about it. Shin Dong-hyuk, human rights activist, North Korean defector and escapee, demonstrates during a White House vigil at Lafayette Park in Washington, DC, in July. Shin is the only person to have escaped from a ‘total-control zone’ grade internment camp in North Korea and lived to tell about it.

Now 30, he is in Seoul, posting weekly web videos featuring other defectors from the North.

“I can say without reservation that Shin’s story is the most interesting and complex that I’ve covered,” Harden, 60, declares over the phone from Seattle, Washington, the United States. He resides there with his wife Jessie, who works for Boeing, and their nine-year-old daughter Lucinda and seven-year-old son Arno.

He recently took Lucinda to see the fantasy movie, The Hunger Games, which is set in a dystopian world where children kill one another for food, and found horrific parallels to the savagery Shin lived with for most of his life.

“He did not know basic value structures and what it meant to be a human being until he was 23,” says the journalist who, like Shin, hopes Escape From Camp 14 can raise enough international awareness to effect change for the better in the North Korean gulags.

Former Washington Post journalist
Blaine Harden says Shin’s story ‘is the
most interesting and complex he has
ever covered’. Former Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden says Shin’s story ‘is the most interesting and complex he has ever covered’.

The book is certainly making waves: It has been on the New York Times bestseller list for three weeks and received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.

London’s Guardian newspaper calls it “harrowing but important”, while the Wall Street Journal describes it as “searing”. The Economist and the Washington Post, Harden’s former employer, have called for investigations into the prison camps.

A career journalist now with TV channel PBS Frontline, Harden started out at age 25 on the Post, where his first assignment was to write about a horse that had been saved from drowning.

He went on to become its foreign correspondent in Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia, and in the noughties, was national news correspondent for The New York Times.

He was with the Post again, covering North and South Korea, when he first met Shin via a human rights group in Seoul in December 2008. Given Pyongyang’s iron grip on media and reporting in the country, one of the best ways for journalists like him to fill in the blanks is to talk to defectors in South Korea, Harden says.

Shin was then 26 and had recently published his life story in Korean, Escape To The Outside World, which had sold barely 500 of the 3,000 print run.

Over lunch and through a translator, he shared stories of the savagery he encountered daily in the camp, from his schoolteacher beating a girl to death because she was hoarding food – five “unauthorised” grains of wheat – to his cousin being raped by the prison guards.

Shin and his older brother themselves were products of a forced “marriage” between his parents, who met only a handful of times to breed. He has no idea whether he has other relatives still in the camp.

His account could not be verified independently, though human rights activists in Seoul agreed that it rang true.

Shin is after all unique, the only North Korean born in a prison camp to have escaped alive. An estimated 200,000 people are confined to these camps, easily captured in satellite images but denied vigorously by the government in Pyongyang.

Harden says the existence of these camps explains how the North Korean system has been able to outlast other totalitarian regimes. “The reason is they have lost none of their capacity for cruelty,” he says.

His 2008 report on Shin for the Washington Post elicited “a remarkable reaction from readers”, so over the next nine months, he convinced the younger man to allow him to write a book that would raise awareness of these camps.

They met in southern California in the summer of 2010. Shin was then living under the wing of an American couple but spoke little English. Translation was provided by a friend his own age, Yale graduate David Kim.

“It was an experience like no other, to pry so hard, to get close, to get as much information as possible. He didn’t like it, but he understood the need for it,” Harden recalls of their sessions, which went on intermittently until February of last year.

Midway through their interaction, Shin revealed a terrible truth: that he was responsible for the death of his mother and brother. He had earlier reported how she and his older brother were hanged to death for attempting to escape when he was 14, and had also spoken of the torture he faced as punishment for their so-called crime.

He had hidden the fact that he was the person who betrayed them to the guards in the first place, but felt he could no longer lie to his friends.

Harden quoted Shin’s words at a human rights conference in Washington, DC, earlier this month: “I wanted people to know this is the kind of children they are raising right now in these camps. People whose loyalty is to the guards and who will do anything to get more food.”

The effects clearly linger, as the book shows. Shin has difficulty maintaining relationships and has also shied away from learning English. Even now, when he and Harden appear together to promote the book – they split the proceeds evenly – he needs a translator.

“He has said he’s not the kind of person who should get an education,” the journalist says. “It’s a part of his guilt surviving these camps.

“He has also said he’s in the process of learning how to be a human being. Those are his words.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network

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