Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden: Book Review

Title: Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
Author: Blaine Harden
Publication details: 2015 (first published in 2013) by Penguin Books
Genre: Non-fiction, biography, memoir

A New York Times bestseller, the shocking story of one of the few people born in a North Korean political prison to have escaped and survived.

North Korea is isolated and hungry, bankrupt and belligerent. It is also armed with nuclear weapons. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are being held in its political prison camps, which have existed twice as long as Stalin's Soviet gulags and twelve times as long as the Nazi concentration camps. Very few born and raised in these camps have escaped. But Shin Donghyuk did.

In Escape from Camp 14, acclaimed journalist Blaine Harden tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk and through the lens of Shin's life unlocks the secrets of the world's most repressive totalitarian state. Shin knew nothing of civilized existence-he saw his mother as a competitor for food, guards raised him to be a snitch, and he witnessed the execution of his own family. Through Harden's harrowing narrative of Shin's life and remarkable escape, he offers an unequaled inside account of one of the world's darkest nations and a riveting tale of endurance, courage, and survival.

I am always fascinated by North Korea- their form of government, their culture, the people. So when I saw this book some time in 2013, I knew I had to read this book. Though I wasn't able to buy it until this year (I think, or last year lol), I was still glad to have read the story of Shin Dong-hyuk in Escape from Camp 14.

The story of Shin Dong-hyuk changed since its first publication, as he had eventually come out with the truth. That is why my copy has a revised foreword, where the author states the truth behind those covered-up parts.

Consequently, Shin's credibility experienced a dent. But readers of this book have to think that Shin had a different world back then, had no one to look up to in terms of values, and never knew the good things to based his life on. He was born inside the camp! Of course, that does not exempt him from changing. I know he has people around him, willing to help. I liked that he is trying, slowly and stubbornly perhaps, but what is important is he is trying.

Regardless of his reliability, his story is still heartbreaking. Growing up inside the camp, he always had a dark environment, always lived on a survival mode. He cannot even trust his family. As I was reading, I saw a glimpsed of Shin's dark world, of what it is like to have no freedom, and to have no sense of identity. Every second of his life, he is being watched. Every day, he has to be careful of his words and actions, has to play by the rules of the regime. Even his basic human nature has to be suppressed.

Shin's story also speaks for the others inside the camp. Though their stories vary, no one can ignore the suffering and degrading lives they all experienced and are still experiencing in the camp and under the North Korean government. Even outside the camp, poverty and hunger are rampant. I don't think the citizens were every truly happy and free.

I cannot comprehend the evilness of the government, or rather the select few who benefit from the totalitarian state. It feeds them at the expense of the people they are supposed to serve and protect.

Aside from the brutal ways of the North Korean government, it was also saddening to know how easy it is to lose our identity as humans- our emotions, our pride, our intelligence, our hearts. Nurture can indeed affect one's character, as much as nature does. And in times of difficulty and in the face of suffering, it's inevitable to choose one's self. Being selfless is a battle only a few had a victory of.

Overall, I had a bittersweet and insightful reading experience. Escape from Camp 14 not only gave me a glimpse of North Korea's reality but it also made me think about humanity in general.

The struggle against tyranny and corruption continues not only in North Korea but in many parts of the world. Our country, the Philippines, is in deep, pressing situation too. There are many Shins in this world. Many who are suffering, who are lost. But we don't stop fighting for what is right. We don't stop being good, just because many choose to be blind. We do not put out the fire that makes us human.

Reading Escape from Camp 14 reminded me how complex humanity is. It gave me mixed emotions and a resolve to fight for what is right, and to do what is good. It also reminded me that life may throw a seemingly endless bouts of challenges, but they all end. It will end.

If you're into non-fiction, political, and memoir genres, I definitely recommend Escape from Camp 14. It is worth reading!


It does not feel right to rate a book based on someone's life, so I won't be rating this one.

Harden is an author and journalist who worked for The Washington Post for 28 years as a correspondent in Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia, as well as in New York and Seattle. He was also a national correspondent for The New York Times and writer for the Times Magazine. He has contributed to The Economist and PBS Frontline.

Harden's newest book, "King of Spies," is out in October of 2017. It's the untold story of Major Donald Nichols, an American spy in Korea who would become America's Kurtz. He operated in a shadowland of executions and torture, while sending hundreds of his agents to their deaths inside North Korea. His reign ended suddenly, when he was secretly removed from South Korea, locked up in a U.S. military hospital in Florida and subjected to 50 rounds of memory-obliterating electroshock.

Harden is also the author of "The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot" (Viking/Penguin, 2015), "Escape From Camp 14" (Viking/Penguin 2012) and "A River Lost" (Norton, revised and updated edition 2012). (Source: Goodreads)