What do we know about life inside the DPRK? Not much, but Bill Keller does an admirable job drawing attention by updating the slim but growing list of recent books–based on the stories of real former prisoners–and linked to such sources as a study “Hidden Gulag Second Edition” by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and a recent Foreign Affairs article.
Harden’s story of Shin Dong-hyuk differs from the best previous refugee narratives — “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” by Kang Chol-hwan, Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” — because Shin was in every sense a product of Camp 14. Born in captivity to a pair of inmates picked by camp commanders for a loveless bit of procreation, Shin grew up with no awareness of anything beyond the electrified fences. He is like the boy-narrator of Emma Donoghue’s novel “Room,” whose entire world is the backyard shed where he and his kidnapped mother are held captive. Except that the boy in “Room” knows love.
Harden’s book, besides being a gripping story, unsparingly told, carries a freight of intelligence about this black hole of a country. It explains how the regime has endured longer than any of its bestial prototypes: longer than Hitler, longer than Stalin, longer than Mao, longer than Pol Pot. The tools are enforced isolation, debilitating fear, dehumanizing hunger and utter dependence on the state. By the time he was a teenager, Shin had watched a teacher beat a 6-year-old girl to death for hoarding five kernels of corn; worse, he had betrayed his own mother and brother, and had witnessed their public execution without remorse.
Add to that rare photos from Tomas Van Houtryve in Time magazine, a chilling photo series from David Guttenfelder for the Atlantic in 2009, a BBC backgrounder from Damian Grammaticas, and a NatGeo Explorer episode and you get the sense of how bleak this country is.
All this is on the brain as our latest edition (no.9) in the Kennedy Center and Combat Films & Research Beyond the Border doc series is coming out soon.