Shin was born and raised in labor Camp 14 in North Korea. He (and his family) were punished for the crimes of Shin’s father’s brother (which were committed before Shin’s birth). Shin was taught from birth by the camp guards to be a snitch on his fellow prisoners and not to bat an eye when they were beat (or killed) in front of him for disobeying camp rules. Everyone was a competitor for food, including his mother. Ultimately, he informed on his mother and brother when he learned they were planning to escape, which lead to their execution, and felt nothing but anger towards his mother about it until long after he escaped from the camp. Shin’s story is not sugar coated and can be difficult to read and heartbreaking, hearing about his torture after his mother was arrested, hearing about the way students routinely (and without a second though) participated in the punishments and beatings of their fellow classmates at their teacher’s request, and about the hunger, the cold, and the discomfort that was just a fact of life for Shin and the rest of the prisoners in the camp. Interspersed into Shin’s story is information about everyday life in North Korea outside of the labor camps and the history of the Kim Dynasty. A corrupt government that isolates and tries to brainwash its people, that allows them to starve while their palaces include water parks.
At times Escape From Camp 14 has hints of being a fictional dystopia (kids will inform on their parents as in 1984, a government and elite inner circle that have an excess of goods, while everyone else is scrounging as in The Hunger Games), but this world and these camps are life for around 24 million people. While many escape from North Korea every year Shin is thought to be the only person born and raised in a labor camp to have gotten out of the country. And all those that defect have a hard time to adjusting to life outside; they learn that nearly everything about the world they have been taught by their government is a lie, they find it hard to let go of paranoia and hold on to jobs. While Kim Jong-Un can be something of a joke sometimes (he even has his own memes), life under his regime is a stark and harsh reality for many, especially those who have spent their entire lives in one of its labor camps.
Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden is a 2015 Abraham Lincoln Nominee. Check out the book trailer.