Three days ago, the new president of South Korea was elected: Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a former president and the first woman ever to be elected as the leader of the country. My immediate concern with the president-elect was whether she shall be the one who could make the nation’s longest dream possible: the reunification of the peninsula. Living in another continent for more than a decade gave me a sense of third-perspective on the country I was born, that nothing other than the resolution of the division could be the base for the higher prosperity, coherence and strength of the nation as an independent one.
My close attention to the imminent fall of the Kim regime in North Korea has naturally led to the heartbreaking stories of North Korean defectors as the only official source of the recent information of the actual lives in the communist country. It also gave me shudder to know that the concentration camps still exist in the not-too-distant land I was born and raised.
The labour camps in North Korea have existed for twice longer than Soviet Gulags and twelve times longer than Nazi concentration camps. South Korean and American governments estimate 145,000 to 200,000 were imprisoned within these camps. Four of the six camps across the country are “total control districts” on which the prisoners labelled as “irredeemables” are worked to death. The birth of Shin Dong-Hyuk in November 1982 was highly exceptional in Camp 14 where the laws strictly forbids sexual intermingling of prisoners. The marriage of his father and mother was arranged by the authorities as the highest reward to the prisoners whose conduct and productivity set the examples to others.
Of course, Camp 14 was among the worst places in the world to breed a family. The abusive guards and scarcity of food within the camp would not make it possible for Shin’s family to develop any sense of affection and care for each other. His mother was merely a competitor for food, as Shin recalls. He had rarely seen or known his father and older brother always away from home, working in other sites in the camp. Shin was no different from other desperate and exhausted prisoners who would willingly snitch on family members and friends for guarantees for more food. Family was only a burden to the young boy who had been only taught to obey the guards and wash away their sins through hard labour. Though his attitudes were understandable, it did make me very sad to read the parts where Shin coldly refuses the care his father struggled to show his remaining son after the deaths of Shin’s mother and brother.
His father had tried, after the killing of his wife and eldest son, to be more attentive. He had apologized for being a bad parent and for having exposed the boy to the camp’s savagery. He had even encouraged his son, if he ever got the chance, to “see what the world is like.” …his father had gone to the extraordinary trouble of obtaining the rice flour and sending it to his son as a paternal offering. Shin was repulsed by his father’s gift and, although hungry, gave it away. (p. 111-112)
After the escape, Shin spent a long time of shame and self-disgust before confessing his role in the execution of his mother and brother who were caught in the midst of their escaping plan. The thought of leaving his father behind the fences haunted him every night. Without major changes, he would live the rest of his life with that haunting images of his father and other prisoners still remaining in the camp. It was almost impossible for me to imagine a life with that kind of guilt forever buried in the heart. AndyKim, a young Korean American who, for a time, was Shin’s closest confidant, said:
“He cannot enjoy his life when there are people suffering in the camps. He sees happiness as selfishness.”
Besides from Blaine’s prose is explicit and succinct with a series of pertinent and extensive references to the experts and field workers for North Korean issues, I was also impressed by the author for his remarkable care, patience and understanding for Shin who was struggling very hard to adapt to the new life and freedom in South Korea and the States. After all, Mr. Harden played a role that is more than just a biographer: he was a mentor and close advisor to the young man now in his late twenties, planning for a future in the new world.
The book concludes with a portrayal of Shin giving a successful speech in a Korean American Pentecostal Church where he finally looked the author in the eye he always avoided, as if hinting the end of his dark past and a new beginning of his future. Of course it would be impossible to estimate the depth of his internal struggles from the haunting images of his own family and other North Koreans still in the camps, but I believe that the day will come sooner than we think and remove all the burdens we have towards those inside the closed borders of the half of the Korean peninsula.