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In which John discusses life inside a North Korean concentration camp as reported by Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person ever known to have gotten out of North Korea after being born in the infamous Camp 14. The remarkable book:
Good morning, Hank, it's Tuesday. I really liked your video about North Korea, and it reminded me of a book I read called Escape From Camp 14 that I want to talk about, but I'm having some trouble finding it, so I don't know if i'm going to be able to... let's, let's just look. You know, my exceptionally well-catalogued home library just isn't as well cataloged as it used to be. Yes, I found it, Hank, right where it belongs, under the German editions of Let It Snow. Right, so this is the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, the only person ever known to have escaped Camp 14. Camp 14 is, at least we think, the worst camp for North Korean political prisoners, like the life expectancy for males there is somewhere around forty, if you don't get executed. And the stories that have emerged from Camp 14 are truly horrifying, like for instance, a six-year-old girl who was beaten to death for stealing five kernels of corn. But what you expect in these stories is that our hero will suffer, and he does - when Shin is fourteen, he is imprisoned in solitary confinement, where he can't stand up for eight months and tortured every day. Also, because he was born in the camp, the child of a marriage arranged by guards, he has never in his life eaten a legal meal other than gruel made of cabbage and corn. And, because malnutrition is universal in Camp 14, and death by starvation is very common, access to food is a very important incentive. By the way, people make jokes about North Korea, but it is not funny. This is not going to be a funny video. Now, Hank, the other thing you have to expect in a story like this, is that the hero will have an indomitable will and some kind of moral center that carries him through all of his trials and tribulations. Which is why it's so confounding when, in the first chapter, you learn that this guy, Shin, when he was fourteen, turned his mother into the authorities when he overheard her talking about escaping. And then eventually both Shin's mom and his brother were executed. Shin witnessed this execution, and at the time, he felt it was appropriate. Shin was born into a world where, if you hear people talking about escaping, you should tell on them, and then they should be executed. That was moral. Also, he knew from having witnessed it that if he didn't tell on his family, and they did escape, he would be executed. Which makes his own escape even more ethically complicated, because he knows he put what remains of his family at risk. And at least to hear Shin tell it, his escape wasn't motivated by his indomitable human will seeking freedom; he just wanted food! He became friends with one of the few people who'd lived outside of the camp, and that guy was like, "You should see the food they have in China! It's endless!" So Shin decided to escape, because he wanted the endless food they had in China. Hank, I'll tell you why I never believed this whole "the human spirit can't be broken" thing. You may remember that in March of 2007, I was hospitalized with an infection behind my eye. This infection was not like life-threatening, Hank. It wasn't even really eye-threatening. But it was pretty miserable and uncomfortable, and I remember staring up at the acoustic ceiling tiles of the hospital at like 2:30 in the morning one time, and thinking like "Eh, I'm ready for death." Like, the problem with extracting information via torture, other than it being wrong, is not that people won't talk; it's that they will talk so much, they will say anything to make the pain stop. So the information you get isn't reliable. So what makes this story amazing is not the strength of the human will, but the fragility of it. And what makes Shin a hero is not that he's born with some ethical center; it's that he develops it, in China and South Korea and the United States, after his escape. He is, as he says, "evolving into a human being." Most of us undergo that evolution so early that it feels innate, but North Korea reminds us: it's not. Hank, I'll see you on Friday.