Review: ‘Escape From Camp 14’ by Blaine Harden

If you think your life is tough here in America, you’ll want to keep reading because I guarantee it’s not so bad here. Better yet, read the book ‘Escape From Camp 14’ and you’ll better appreciate your life.

This book tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, a young man who was born in a North Korean labor camp. He knew nothing of the outside world except the little bits and pieces (mostly lies) his teachers/guards told him. His schooling consisted of learning just enough to be barely literate. A lot of his time at school was spent with his classmates doing hard labor. And this was when he was barely a teenager.

The Dirty Details of Notorious Camp 14

The author, Blaine Harden, doesn’t sugarcoat anything Shin told him during the countless interviews he gave while Harden was doing research for this book. It quickly becomes obvious that Harden spent a lot of time winning Shin’s trust, considering Shin spent all of his formative years in a place where snitching on friends and family was not just a normal part of life, but encouraged by the guards.

Some of the horrific parts of the book that are burned in my mind include:

  1. Watching the teacher in school beat a girl to death because she had a few grains of rice in her pocket.
  2. Watching the execution of his mother and brother, as a direct result of Shin snitching on them.
  3. Horrible months of brutal torture after he told a guard about the escape plan his mother and brother were hatching.
  4. Eating insects and rats around the camp just to stay alive because the extraordinarily small rations given to prisoners were hardly enough to sustain life.
  5. Little to no access to health care. Salt was literally rubbed into a wound as a disinfectant. Amputations were done with no anesthetic. Forget about antibiotics.

I could go on and list more, but I don’t want to take away from too much of the book. Harden goes into the gruesome details by using a chronological narrative of Shins life.

An Impossible Escape

It shouldn’t be a spoiler that Shin escapes from Camp 14 (given the title and the fact Shin was in the US being interviewed for this book). Escape from a “total control” prison like Camp 14 was virtually unheard of. Even someone with a good knowledge of the world outside the camp would have slim odds of making it. And for someone like Shin, who spent his entire life, from the moment of birth, in Camp 14, escape seemed like a pipe dream.

But a combination of a lot of luck, Shin’s determination to be free and his common sense approach to dealing with the world outside the electrified fence, all worked in his favor. He knew he’d have the best chance to make it through the fence (which was designed to kill those who touched it) while they were working close to the fence on a work detail. While he and his co-conspirator were running towards the fence, Shin tripped and fell, which probably saved his life (read the book to find out how).

Shin managed to make his way into China, then to South Korea and eventually the United States. Even after he crossed the border into China, he still wasn’t safe because Chinese authorities will deport all North Korean defectors they catch.


Harden does a great job weaving Shin’s story into the greater story of North Korea, its history and how the average citizen lives in the most closed-off nation on earth. I read this book in about 3-4 days because I simply had to find out what happened next. The author’s writing is direct and to-the-point. A reporter by trade, Harden doesn’t use flowery language to tell the story.

I absolutely recommend this book! You’ll have a much greater knowledge about North Korea, plus you’ll really start to appreciate your life in a free society.

Disclaimer: I paid the listed Amazon price for this ebook. The Amazon link in this post is not an affiliate link. 

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