Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Hope can work wonders even in the deepest of abyss

English Novelist George Orwell’s 1984 is summarised by The Literature Network as: ‘1984 is possibly the dystopian novel, set in a world beyond our imagining. A world where totalitarianism really is total…’ The novel talks about how The Party is overseeing lives of all citizens and controlling their mind. One is not sure if George Orwell knew about Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s ‘Eternal President’, but there is an uncanny resemblance between Orwell’s 1984 and the way the Democraic Republic of Korea has turned out to be today. 1984 was published in 1949 -- Kim Il Sung had assumed office a year earlier and it seems the Korean leader built the nation taking cues from the book. Orwell’s work appears as a juvenile attempt when compared to the totalitarian state North Korea has become today.

Blaine Harden’s Escape From Camp 14 is a novel about the escape of a person from a gulag (prison camp) in North Korea to China, from there to South Korea and finally to the US. There is nothing new about North Korean gulags -- like global warming and climate change it is an inconvenient truth great nations in the world have either chosen to deny, ignore or live with in spite of human right groups proving beyond doubt that the regime in Pyongyang is a brutal and fascist one.
A number of books and reports have been published by escapees from the North and commissions that have visited the closed nation. However among the many things that makes Escape From Camp 14 unique is that it is the life story of Shin Dong-hyuk who escaped alive from Camp 14. Shin was born in Camp 14 -- Camp 14 is different from other camps as most of the inmates in this camp are born in the camp -- and escaped while he was 23-years-old. Going by records maintained in Seoul and Washington, Shin is the only prisoner born in a gulag to have escaped.
Harden very deftly uses the third person narrative and interweaves it with a narrative voice to corroborate Shin’s observations using facts and accounts from interviews he has done with other escapees. In one account Shin recollects how guards in the camp used to hit and torture the inmates without giving an explanation; if in the process someone died, it was a ‘lesson’ to the others. No guard was ever questioned for the death of an inmate. To give more credence to Shin’s observation, Harden uses an interview with An Myeong Chul, a former prison guard, who escaped to Seoul. An says that they were taught to look at the inmates as “dogs and pigs”. “We were taught not to look at them as human beings”.
Shin’s story is special, Harden explains, because ‘his life unlocked the door, allowing outsiders to see how the Kim family sustained itself with child slavery and murder.’ In another instance, Harden throws light into one of the reasons as to why the human rights abuse in North Korea has gone unnoticed for such a long time. He quotes Suzanne Scholte, a long-time activist as saying: “Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney… North Koreans have no one like that.”
Harden’s book also explains, through Shin, why Pyongyang has been able to hold on to power despite unimaginable human suffering. Kim Il Sung brought in a caste system and divided the people into three groups, based on their allegiance to the leader. The lower strata consist of people who have tried to escape the country or family members of those who escaped. They are treated as inferior beings and torture – physical and psychological -- is the least of benevolence they can expect from the guards.
Harden’s Book gives an unprecedented picture of Camp 14. Shin, who is born in the camp because of a ‘reward marriage’, is taught that he has to suffer because of the sins of his parents and to wash away those sins he has to work very hard and snitch about others. Like all children born in the camp, Shin is loyal to the guards (who are also his teachers) and will snitch about anyone -- he even betrays his mother and this leads to her execution, which he watches sitting in the front row.
Shin Dong-hyuk at Amsterdam in 2012

In another instance he observes that ‘A perverse benefit of birth in the camp was a complete absence of expectations’. Oblivious to the outside world inmates born in the camp take torture and begging the guards as part of survival and not as humiliation as seen by prisoners who arrive at camps later in their life. Suicide is a route many take in the camp, but as Shin says ‘he had no hope to lose, no past to mourn, no pride to defend.’
Escape From Camp 14 is an account of gulag brutality and an account of how indoctrination is helping Pyongyang further its stranglehold. Above all it is shows how once hope is given the human spirit finds its way to freedom overcoming insurmountable obstacles.
Escape From Camp 14 is Blaine Harden’s third book.
(An edited version of this appeared in The New Indian Express on Sunday, May 6, 2012)