Escape from Camp 14 is the story of Shin In Geun, now Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have been bred and born inside a North Korean labor camp, indeed, its most infamous labor camp, and to have escaped and survived to tell his story.
So here's the thing. I can't wrap my head around this story. It is impossible for me to imagine living conditions so bad that a human being doesn't really know how to feel like a human being. Shin grew up viewing his own mother not as a mother, but as a competitor for food! He says, "sometimes I try to cry and laugh like other people, just to see if it feels like anything." Brutality, cruelty, torture, dehumanization were normal to Shin. What was not normal, or even known to him was love, generosity, kindness. I cannot comprehend a human child being torn down to the point that his humanity is virtually non-existent. What is even harder for me to comprehend is that the humanity in this child was dismantled before he was even born! His parents were literally bred together. Like animals. He was born into the world lower than a slave, lower than livestock. Born in no better than a beast. I can't comprehend that!
Shin didn't escape from his labor camp because he had finally had enough, and imagined a better life beyond the fence. He didn't know there was a world beyond the fence--I don't think he could imagine, really. He had heard stories from newly incarcerated prisoners that there was food beyond the fence. He escaped because he wanted to eat. That's it. It was the allure of stories of roasted meat that made Shin run and propel himself at an electrified fence, made him risk being shot down like he was nothing, made him risk public execution if caught, made him risk dying of exposure, starvation, or murder. It wasn't because of his humanity. It was because he wanted to have food in his belly. Basic animal survival instinct.
You know what this book made me think of? Victor of Aveyron, a French feral child who was found in 1800. One observer remarked of Victor, "there is something extraordinary in his behavior, which makes him seem close to the state of wild animals". This is true of the people born inside Camp 14, too. Like Victor, they too lived lives with no notion or affirmation of their humanity. I am glad Shin escaped, and I am glad that he is maybe getting to know the nobility of his humanity. And that is hard to wrap my head around, too. What must it take to find value in yourself when your whole life you've been trained to believe none exists there?