BRIAN LAMB: Your book is called Escape From Camp 14 but your first sentence in the preface is ”His first memory is an execution.” What are you talking about?
BLAINE HARDEN, AUTHOR, ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14: The book is about a kid at this point in the story. His name is Shin Dong-hyuk. He was born in Camp 14, one of the political labor camps in North Korea.
His first memory at the age of around four was going with his mom to a place near where he grew up in the camp to watch somebody get shot. And shootings, public executions in the camp were held every few weeks and they were a way of punishing people who violated camp rules and of terrorizing the 20,000 to 40,000 people who lived in the camp to obey the rules from then on.
LAMB: You say in your book, you’ve been in North Korea once. Did you get to see a camp?
HARDEN: Nobody has seen a camp other than North Korean guards and officials and people who go to them and almost never come out. There are now five or six of these camps and they contain between a 150,000 and 200,000 prisoners. And with the exception of one camp they are no exit places where one goes if you are believed or imagined by the North Korean Government of having done something wrong, of having been a wrong doer or a wrong thinker.
And you go there without trial. Usually you’re taken away at night and you stay there for the rest of your lives, the rest of your life. And very often you go with your kids and with your parents. I was at a conference yesterday in the concentration camps and the latest information is that half of the people in the camps now are believed to be just the relatives of wrong doers or wrong thinkers.
So collective guilt is very much a part of this system. The reason the camps exist and have existed for more than 40 years is because they’re an instrument of terror, of the Kim Family Dynasty. What they do is they put away those who might cause trouble and they terrorize the 23 to 24 million people in the country to not even think about causing trouble.
And to that end, they’ve been pretty darn successful. North Korea has been the longest lasting totalitarian state in world history.
LAMB: We have a Google map shot of Korea, North Korea. And you can see on there the line of China above right. When you were there, you said in the 20s there weren’t very many people there. What do you remember? What do you what is in your mind’s eye about North Korea and where did you go?
HARDEN: Well going to North Korea is not a good way to report about North Korea. I went along with a group of about 600 Westerners with the New York Philharmonic went to Pyongyang at the invitation of the government for a special concert. And like almost all western visitors we were housed in a high-rise hotel on an island in Pyongyang and taken to various places that they want to show off, statues, assembly halls, grand avenues, the subway, and then we were taken to the airplane and left about 2-1/2 days later.
So my understanding of North Korea based on that trip is, is that the country is bizarre and full of white concrete and very immaculately guards. But that’s not the reality of North Korea. The way you find out about the reality of North Korea and it’s increasingly easy for a report to do it, is to go to Seoul in South Korea where there are now close to 30,000 defectors from South Koreas almost all of whom have arrived in the past 10 years.
And you can talk to them and they are by far the best sources of about what it’s like to live in that country, and how difficult it is to get out. And there are now 60 former camp inmates and former guards that total who’ve been interviewed by human rights groups who’ve given a very detailed nuance and really credible picture of what goes on in the camps. And those, those, that picture by in their words has been supplemented by increasingly detailed satellite images of all the camps.
LAMB: Twenty three million in north, how many in the south?
HARDEN: More than 50, more than 50 million. And they’re really two, two different places, two different universes. South Korea is now the 11th largest economy in the world. It has people who are obsessed with education. They work really hard they have less leisure than any other country in the developed world and they kill, they commit suicide, it’s at a very, very high rate, in fact the highest rate in the world now.
It’s a high pressure, high achieving education obsessed culture that really does not pay a lot of attention to North Korea in the cultural sense or in the aspirational sense. It deals with North Korea because it must because it’s a trouble making neighbor.
LAMB: If my memory is correct we lost 50,000 Americans in the Korean War back in the early 50s. What was that war about and what was South Korea then compared to North Korea?
HARDEN: Well they were both poor. And they were both recovering from the ravages of World War II. And that war, the United States divided the Korean Peninsula in the wake of World War II between north and south. And the south was a sort of a military dictatorship aligned with the United States. And the north was a military dictatorship aligned mostly with Russia.
Kim II Sung was the, was the leader who emerged in North Korea and he over a period of 10 years created a cult of personality around himself. He modeled his state after Stalin’s state. And then he invaded South Korea in 1950, yes 1951. And that’s and made some real progress across South Korea. There was a counter attack by U.S. led forces and United Nation forces. And then over the course of three years they fought to a stalemate.
And the same line was returned and North and South Korea have been divided ever since. And North Korea remained allied with Russia and with China and but North Korea developed a brand of totalitarian leadership that became increasingly isolated and increasingly cruel as time went by.
Kim II Sung was a popular leader. He had real, real grassroots support from lots of North Koreans and when he died in 1994 people genuinely wept. His son the first hereditary dictator in a communist state Kim Jong II was less popular.
He didn’t have a popular touch but he was shrewd and he was cruel. And the camps as an instrument of enforcement became increasingly important. And their population grew. And there is there are indications now with this third Kim family leader, Kim Jong Un who is 28, 29 years old and interestingly is about the same age as the hero of my book.
He it’s unclear how popular he will be or even if he’s in control at this point.
LAMB: We’ll come back to your hero of this book, Shin after I show you some video from our first book interview back in 1991. I asked you why you why you like to travel.
HARDEN: I went to school, I went to college and I read and I got interested in faraway lands. I remember as a kid in college I didn’t believe that they existed. I really didn’t. I sometimes would go to bed thinking that Walter Cronkite and these other people were putting together a big, elaborate deception.
That they were photographing sets and that the world outside of what I knew wasn’t there.
LAMB: Do you remember saying that?
HARDEN: Yes, I do, yes and I did think that. And you know I sort of spent my life proving myself wrong, proving my college self wrong and being a foreign correspondent.
LAMB: Now when we talked with you, you were at the Washington Post and you wrote a book about Africa and that’s what we were talking about.
LAMB: But since then where have you lived?
HARDEN: In Eastern Europe. I was there for the collapse of the communism and the Yugoslav wars which is a really interesting mix because one was a story full of joy and hope and reconciliation. You know the Prague’s the Prague Revolution where in Czechoslovakia people came out by the hundreds of thousands led by Vaclav Havel and listened to his incredible speeches and left the main square and didn’t even step on the flower beds.
It was just it was a wonderful, joyous thing to do and to be part of. And then the Yugoslav crackup came and it was a horrible mess that Americans didn’t understand. It was incredibly dangerous. It went on for a long time.
I did not see it all through. I left about half way, two-thirds of the way through it and came home and wrote a book about another subject and felt terrible guilt and actually some post traumatic stress because I had spent a lot of time in Sarajevo and had taken a lot of risks and I didn’t think that I had done a good job and the bad guys were winning when I left.
So that was it was a very strange assignment from joy to really heartbreak.
LAMB: Well in 1995 you were talking about a book on the Columbia River. Here’s I think this is the let’s watch this clip. We were on the bus at the time.
HARDEN: I was born there and I grew up there.
LAMB: Have you been back lately?
HARDEN: I spent from most of 1993 and part of ’94 there working on a book about the Columbia River which is a big environmental problem out there. It’s been dammed to death and the salmon to a large extent wiped out.
And there is a huge public policy debate. Now what’s interesting about the place is that my family went there, in fact, I was born in the town the year that water was diverted from the Columbia River to irrigate the farms around the town. And my family and my ability to go to college all depended on destroying the river.
That’s how what the story is about.
LAMB: Moses Lake Washington is where?
HARDEN: It’s in the Columbia Basin almost in the middle of Washington State. And it’s it was a desert and they built Grand Coulee Dam and other dams and diverted water from the Columbia River and turned that desert into a very productive farm area and that’s where I was born.
LAMB: So you left Eastern Europe and went came back here and then where did you go?
HARDEN: I went to the New York Times for four years and covered I was a roving national correspondent and also I did stories about Africa and Eastern Europe for the magazine. Then I went back to the Post which was the mother ship as all the editors called it.
And it really was the place that had hired me when I was young, when I first came on your show. I had been with the Post for a few years and so I went back and then I went out to cover the American West for the Washington Post from 2003 until 2007.
And then they said do you want to go to Asia? And I said well I don’t know and my wife said yes we should go. And so we went with our little daughter and son and we were there until 2010.
LAMB: Where did you live over there?
HARDEN: In Tokyo. The Post had always had its bureau in Tokyo. But when I went to Japan my boss, David Hoffman, who was then the boss of the foreign correspondents
LAMB: At The Post?
HARDEN: At The Post, he said you know you’re a feature writer, you’re good at that. But why don’t you do something that’s hard and something that you probably don’t want to do. He said I want you to write about North Korea.
I want you to bash your head against that story and tell us something new. Tell us how it works and if you fail that’s fine but if you don’t try I’m going to be very unhappy. And so I started to work on that.
LAMB: This book, Escape from Camp 14, has on the cover a picture of this young man, Shin, who is he?
HARDEN: He is a survivor of Camp 14. He was born in the camp and he escaped in 2005. And as far as we know he is the only individual born in those camps to get out and tell what it’s like to grow up in the camp.
LAMB: Where did you get the idea to do a book about him?
HARDEN: I interviewed him in 2008 and wrote a story that was on the front page that really resulted in an incredible emotional reaction from readers. They wanted to know more about him and about the camps. They wanted to you know give him money and save his soul.
And so I went back to him a few weeks after that piece came out and I said look, let’s do a book. Let’s dig into everything you know about that camp and how you got out of there and what it was like to walk across North Korea.
And he didn’t trust me and he didn’t want to do it, so I begged him for nine months and Human Rights Groups who’d become familiar with this story said, you know, you should cooperate because this is will further your goals which is to make the world aware of what goes on in these camps and also it will, you know, maybe create some sort of governmental pressure in the United States so that human rights becomes at the top of the agenda when they deal with North Korea
LAMB: You made an arrangement with him about the money.
HARDEN: We split the money even and that was important to him, because he wanted he didn’t have it he doesn’t have any money and he really doesn’t have any business other than being a survivor of this camp.
And then we started to work on it.
LAMB: Where’d you get the idea that he even had a story?
HARDEN: Well I knew he had a story because a friend of mine who’s become a very close friend Lisa Colacurcio who’s with the US Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, she met my wife at a book group and told her about this guy.
And then I talked to her and then I went Seoul and lunch with him and that resulted in the newspaper story.
LAMB: How’d you deal with the language?
HARDEN: That’s it’s really interesting the language, because I don’t speak Korean and he does not speak anything other than Korean. So I had a series of translators. We did interviews in Seoul, we did more interviews in Seoul then we did interviews in Southern California, then we did interviews in Seattle and then we also did hundreds of e-mails.
LAMB: I want to share this picture though of you in front of the Louis Vuitton
store there in Seoul, what was the circumstance there?
HARDEN: This was during one of our weeks of interviews in Seoul, in that was in 2009.
LAMB: How tall are you and how tall is he?
HARDEN: I’m 6’1, or at least I used to be 6’1 and he’s about 5’6 and he is maybe 5’5, he’s stunted from malnutrition and his arms are bowed from childhood labor. Most of the male population of North Korea is stunted from malnutrition.
When males come to South Korea and now there are about 30,000 of them, they are on an average now, according to the South Korean Government, more than five inches shorter than their South Korean contemporaries.
That’s an amazing statement about the nutrition in North Korea.
LAMB: Where is he today?
HARDEN: Today he’s in Washington, because we’re promoting the book. But he has moved about six, seven months ago from the United States back to Seoul where he’s doing some Web broadcasting with some young human rights friends.
And he invites other defectors on to talk about North Korea.
LAMB: So the translation was expensive?
HARDEN: No, it wasn’t that expensive. A lot of people care about Shin Dong-hyuk and they care about his story and want to get it out. I had a really good translator’s in some of whom worked for the Washington Post in Seoul, but the most important translator was a young guy name David Kim who is a friend of Shin’s and who’s family befriended him and fed Shin in Southern California when he was living in Torrance, which is a suburb of Los Angeles.
And David Kim offered to be a translator, David Kim is a graduate of Yale, he’s now at Northwestern Law School and he is incredibly smart and he is really multilingual in idiomatic American English as well as he speaks Korean with his parents who don’t speak much English.
So he was and he’s a good friend. And so he did all of the translating in Southern California, which is where I did the bulk of the reporting and where Shin really opened up to me after a year.
LAMB: Where’s this picture from?
HARDEN: This is taken from the Group House in Torrance, California where Shin was living and working for a group called Liberty in North Korea, which is a human rights group
LAMB: Called Link.
Link, which helped bring Shin to the United States in 2009 and where he was an unpaid volunteer. They off they gave him housing in this group house and he lived there, depending on the time, but, you know, between 12 and 25 people lived in that house, mostly people younger than him.
LAMB: How old is he today?
HARDEN: He’s 29.
LAMB: You got a lot of torture stories in this book, go to the one, this is out of context, but just so people can understand how far it went with him, the story about him being put over the flame.
HARDEN: When he was 13 years old he was taken to an underground prison and I’ll explain the context for this a little later. But he was taken to an underground prison and he asked about the escape plans of his mother and brother.
And he didn’t have good answers, he was very afraid and very confused. And so at one point in that underground prison, he was taken into a room that looked like a machine shop, he was stripped and hung upside down from his ankles and his wrists with his clothes off, in a kind of U, with his back hanging down.
And a cart was brought in with a coal fire and the flames bellows were put on the flames and the flames came up and the cart was rolled underneath his body and he was burned as they asked him questions. And he passed out.
LAMB: What were the extent of his injuries from that?
HARDEN: He well they’re still visible, he has terrible burn marks on his lower back and buttocks of a most severe burn that you would get from being held over a fire. He has other marks on his body from other events.
He has the middle finger of his right hand is cut off at the first knuckle. When he was 22, 23 he was working in a military uniform factory inside the camp
yes, and he was fixing sewing machines and working with a crew of seamstresses and he dropped a sewing machine and they got real mad because sewing machines are very valuable, maybe more valuable than the human beings who fixed them.
And they rushed they grabbed him, took him to a table and hacked off part of his finger as punishment. His
LAMB: Right there.
right there, almost immediately and he has scarring on his legs from when he was hung upside-down in that prison as part of the torture to get him to talk about the escape of his mother and brother.
And when he escaped the camp, he crawled through a high voltage fence and his legs were came into contact with the lowest strand and it burned his legs from knee to ankle on both legs. And the scars there are really horrible.
LAMB: You’re talking about when he escaped the camp and went to China?
LAMB: And what year was that?
HARDEN: That was in 2005.
LAMB: How did he get inside this camp in the first place?
HARDEN: He was born there. His crime was to be born. And his parents were there for reasons that are almost as flimsy. His father was in the camp because his father’s brothers after the Korean War had fled to South Korea. And after the authorities heard about that, his father and his father’s many brothers and parents, were all rounded up and taken to Camp 14. And that’s where Shin was born. He doesn’t know why his mother was there. She never told him and he never asked. They didn’t have the kind of relationship where they would talk.
His parents, his mom and dad, conceived him because they were chosen by the guards for something called a reward marriage and Shin was bred like a farm animal in the camp and raised by his mother. And he was physically his mother gave birth to him but he was raised with the values and the rules of the guards, and was not close to his mother at all. He had to memorize 10 rules of the camp most of which end by saying if you don’t do this you will be shot immediately.
And the first rule of the camp, the most important rule, is if you try to escape you will be shot immediately and a corollary to that rule is if you hear about an escape and don’t report it, you will be shot immediately. And these, these were basically his 10 commandments, his ethical guideposts as a little guy growing up in that camp.
LAMB: Let me read the rest of those 10 quickly so that people can understand what the rules of the camp were. And they almost all have will be shot immediately if they’re caught doing this. The first one was do not try to escape. The second one, no more than two prisoners can meet together. Third one, do not steal. The fourth, guards must be obeyed unconditionally. Five, anyone who sees a fugitive or suspicious figure must promptly report him. Six, prisoners must watch one another report any suspicious behavior immediately.
Seven, prisoners must more than fulfill the work assigned them each day. Eight, beyond the workplace there must be no intermingling between the sexes for personal reasons. Nine, prisoners must genuinely repent of their errors and 10, prisoners who violate the laws and regulations of the camp will be shot immediately. Were they really shot immediately?
HARDEN: They were shot often. And Shin was one of the only forms of entertainment in the camp. I mean where people actually get together to watch something was an execution. And so the rules were taken very seriously particularly by the kids who saw the results of disobedience very clearly.
LAMB: Was the first execution that Shin saw in
HARDEN: Well it was the one that begins the book when he was four years old.
LAMB: What, how does he remember anything from being four?
HARDEN: Well he, I’ve said, what’s your first memory? And he said I remember going with a crowd of people with my mom and being very excited because it was the first time he’d every been around a crowd of people. The rules of the camp is that you don’t, you don’t spend time with a lot of people. So he was, that’s what I think triggers his memory is that he’d never been a crowd of people. He’d never heard this sort of hubbub of people whispering and being close together in a big crowd of many thousands of prisoners.
LAMB: What’s the business about putting marbles in their mouth when they’re shot?
HARDEN: That is a very common practice. I’ve talked to three others who saw this happen. And they do it so that people don’t denounce the guards or particularly the leadership of the country. They are just you know they can’t say anything. It’s rocks actually.
LAMB: And they put a hood over them and then shoot them?
HARDEN: Sometimes they put a hood on them, sometimes they don’t.
LAMB: What about his parents? What did he see with the death of his parents and his brother?
HARDEN: The real heart of this book and the psychological trauma of the rest of his life comes out of the escape plan of his mother and brother. And what happened is when he was 13 he was living in a boarding school which was all kids leave their parents and go to live with other kids in a boarding school.
LAMB: And it was in the camp?
HARDEN: In the camp and this was just only a couple of blocks, actually from here his mom was staying. And Shin had been in the boarding school for a while and on a Friday night his teacher, a guard, a guy who wore a gun told him you know you go home and stay with your mom tonight. You can do that.
And Shin didn’t particularly want to because he didn’t particularly like his mom. But he did it because he was told to. So he went home and when he went home that night his brother was also at the house. And this was very unusual because his brother also lived away from home.
He lived in a concrete factory which was about a mile and a half inside the camp was big.
LAMB: But his brother was eight years older than he was.
HARDEN: His brother was eight years older and Shin hardly knew his brother. I mean he knew who he was but he had not relationship with him. So they had supper, the supper that he had eaten the only meal he had ever eaten in his life which was salt, corn and cabbage. That’s all that was breakfast, lunch and dinner.
LAMB: How do you eat salt?
HARDEN: Well they put salt in soup, cabbage soup and corn. And that’s it’s a kind of gruel and that’s the primary things other than small animals that they could catch in the camps like mice and rats, but this meal was that classic meal.
He had the meal, he went to sleep in this the house that he lived in was it had a central kitchen and then one bedroom. And the central kitchen was for three other units besides the room where his mother slept.
So he went into this bedroom, fell asleep and then he was awakened by the conversation of his mother and brother about midnight. And he heard them talking and he crawled and looked out and he also saw that his mother cooking rice for his brother.
Rice is something that hardly exists at all in the camp but it’s grown there. So some people farm workers can steal it. And his mom worked in the farm at the camp. So she must have stolen some over time and was making rice.
She had never made rice for him. He was really jealous. He was 13 years old. He was really jealous about that. And that peaked his interest and then he heard them talking. And he Shin understood that his father I mean his brother was in some kind of trouble in the camp.
He had apparently violated the rule and had left the concrete factory without permission and had gone to his mother. And you know guards would soon come for him and take him away and punish him. Probably not you know execute him but beat him up which is the common way of punishing people.
And so Shin listened even more and then he heard his brother mention the work escape and Shin’s heart started to pound. He became very, very, very upset and very afraid because of these rules. If you don’t report an escape then you’ll be executed.
And then he heard his mother countenancing that conversation about escape. Shin listened for a while and it was clear that they were talking about trying to escape the plant. And the rice she was cooking was food for flight for him to take and to eat after he got out of the camp.
Shin got up, told his mom he had to go to the bathroom and went out and found a guard and reported them. First he went to a classmate and said what should I do and that classmate said we should report them.
So they went together and when he reported this escape he was thinking how can I turn this to my advantage. And so he asked the guard if he could have more food as a result of his snitching and if he could also be made class leader, a position that would allow him to do less work, take fewer beatings and maybe have more food as well.
The guard said sure, no problem and the guard called his superiors, told Shin to go to bed. Shin went to bed in the school where he lived. The next morning he was awakened and told that there were guards waiting for him and they put a blindfold on him outside the school, put him a Jeep and drove him off to this underground prison inside the camp which he before that did not know existed.
And he was taken inside and then he was interrogated. He went thinking they would see him as a good snitch. But so they started asking him questions about his involvement in the escape and he was frightened and confused and he did not answer in any coherent way for his first two rounds of interrogation which included that torture that I told you about.
In the third interrogation when he was too weak to get up because he had been burned so badly. He was lying on the floor in his cell he told them I did a good job. I turned in my mother. You can check this out with my classmate that I told.
And they did check it out and Shin was allowed to recover in that underground prison. And then he was taken out after seven months. He was taken back to the same officers who had originally interrogated him and he came out and he saw his father was in the camp.
And his father had also been tortured and looked horrible when he saw him. His father’s leg was all akimbo. It had been broken in the torture and his father could hardly move, hardly walk. And then they were both taken together in that Jeep with blindfolds on back to the execution grounds.
The place that he first remembers from when he was four. Shin had his blindfold taken off and the thought oh they’re going to kill me now. And he was terrified that he was about to be shot. But they took his father, helped his father up to the front of the row and they helped Shin up to the front of the row and then they dragged out his mom and his brother.
What’s really interesting about this is that when his mom came out she was put on a makeshift gallows right in front of them. And she was not blindfolded, a hood was not put over her face and she tried to catch her son’s eye, tried to catch Shin’s eye.
And he hated her for the horrors he had just gone through in this underground prison and for her reckless talk of escape. And he refused to catch her eye. And she was hanged in front of him. And then his brother was shot in the head three times by the guards.
And then she had went back into Pyongyang as a 14-year-old.
LAMB: What happened to his father?
HARDEN: His father lost his good job as lathe operator. He was he began work as a laborer, common laborer, limping around the camp. And Shin had a very strange relationship after this execution. His father tried to say I’m sorry that we were so selfish as to have children in this camp. I’m sorry you had to live through this. And I hope somehow you can get out of here.
And Shin just said, aww, I don’t care what you say. And he rarely saw him.
LAMB: Is he alive?
HARDEN: Shin escaped a decade later when he was 23.
LAMB: The year that he escaped
HARDEN: Was 2005.
LAMB: And how did he escape?
HARDEN: He escaped the escape is really a very important part of the book. One thing I want to say about the experience of the execution is that Shin was raised in such a way that he didn’t really love his mother. He did not have feelings of affection, trust towards his father or his brother.
And I first asked him about those things. You know how could you hate your mother. How could you not look her in the eye when she died? And he said you know, these people were competitors with me for food. And they, they did nothing for me that was useful as he saw it.
LAMB: What about God?
HARDEN: He had never heard of God. This is something, a concept that he heard about when he got to South Korea. They learning how to trust other people and learning to feel guilty for he did with his mother is something that he has had to do since he has got to South Korea and the United States.
He’s seen other families. He’s seen other mothers and sons together. And he has begun to feel terribly guilty about the kind of boy he was and what he did. But then he wasn’t guilty.
LAMB: Don’t want to leave it but, does he know what happened to his father?
HARDEN: No. He assumes that his father was either tortured or killed as a result of his escape.
LAMB: Now I know this is the book that people should read, I’m sure from your perspective and I don’t want you to have to go into every detail but escaping to China was difficult for him in what way?
LAMB: And you say it’s never happened before that somebody born in the camp escaped the camp.
HARDEN: Yes. So that would give you an indication that this camp existed according to some South Korean authorities since 1958. And nobody is known to have escaped it until Shin in 2005. So it’s, it’s really damn hard to get out of there.
And he did it because he meet someone who inspired him to think of the outside world. And I think this is sort of Shin’s birth as a human being. He was in the camp working in the sewing machine factory when he was assigned to work with an older guy who I think was in his early 40s. His name is Park.
And Park had lived in Pyongyang. He had traveled and been educated in the former Soviet Union. He was a worldly and a nice guy. And he Shin’s job was to snitch on him because Shin had proved himself as a snitch over the years. He had done it with his parents and with many other people.
But Shin started talking to Park about the world and Park said, you know, I grew up in Pyongyang, and Shin was interested in hearing these stories. And then Shin started talking about something that Park started talking about something that Shin was really interested which was food.
Park liked to eat and he talked about the joys and wonders of grilled meat in China. You could get grilled chicken, you could get grilled beef, grilled pork and you could eat till you were full and you didn’t even have to be rich or important.
You could just that’s the way people live outside this fence and that was a revelation that Shin could not get out of his imagination. He dreamed about it, he fantasized about eating well. Park told him many other things that are were news to him, that the world is round, that China existed, that South Korea existed, that the United States existed, that the leaders in North Korea were a bunch of thieves and thugs.
But none of that was very interesting to Shin, because he had no context for understanding that. His context was that he’d been hungry his whole life and he learned that if he could just get out of this cage, he could eat.
He said, you know, that was enough for him.
LAMB: Camp 14 is how far from the Chinese border?
HARDEN: It’s about 300 miles and it’s about 50 miles just north of Pyongyang in the mountains of Central North Korea.
LAMB: What was the camp surrounded with, what kind of fence?
HARDEN: It was a barbwire fence of between eight and 10 barbwire lines, electrocuted and this was not a kind of fence where, you know, a cow touches it and jumps, this is the kind of fence that you touch, it will grab you and it will kill you.
Yes, that’s the kind of fence it is. Shin heard about grilled meat in China, he got very excited and he said to Park, let’s escape, let’s try to escape. And Park was OK with that idea. He said they would try.
And they he met Park just two months before he decided to escape, so this is all very sudden and yes Shin got very excited, they were really lucky in their escape planning, because they were assigned on the first of the year on to go up to the a side of the camp to gather firewood that was close to the fence, that wasn’t near the guard towers, where guards looked down on the prisoner’s with weapons, you know, where they could have shot people running for the fence.
And they waited until late afternoon on January 2, 2005 till dusk, the glomming light and they ran towards the fence. In fact when they decided to go, when Shin decided to go he said let’s go to Park and Park said I’m not so sure.
And Shin actually grabbed his hand and grabbed and pulled him towards the fence and then Park started to run, as they run as they ran Shin slipped and fell in the snow on an icy part of the snow, because it was cold, the middle of the winter, Park got to the fence first, shoved his torso between the first and second strands of wire and was electrocuted and fell dead on the fence and pulled that bottom strand down, Shin crawled without a moment’s hesitation, Shin crawled over his body and gotten most of the way across that fence and his legs slipped off on both sides.
And he got these terrible burns from the voltage. I talked to an expert on electrocution at the University of Washington who deals with people who deal with power lines with all the power lines around the hydro dams in the Pacific Northwest.
And this scenario which it struck me as pretty weird and pretty odd and not very believable, he said it’s completely believable that this would happen and this would be the only way. He needed that insulator of a human body grounding the voltage to a ground so that he could get through that fence without taking a lethal charge.
LAMB: The chance is that he would have been electrocuted himself if he had tried to get through there.
HARDEN: Yes he was lucky to get through the fence. But not it’s not a it’s not like winning the lottery. It’s something that is conceivable to do according to experts. And he got through the fence. The plan was for Shin to be the Mr. Inside.
In fact, he was the one who helped them get to the fence in a way where they wouldn’t get shot as they approached the fence. But once they got through the fence, Mr. Park, who had been outside the fence who grew up out there in the world.
He was supposed to be Mr. Outside. He was supposed to take them to China, he had an uncle there and then arrange for the shipment to South Korea. But Park was dead.
LAMB: I won’t go into detail on it because there is plenty to read about this but after he got out of the prison how long did it take him to get to China and then back to South Korea?
HARDEN: It took him a month to get across South Korea. A month of walking, riding in trucks, he hopped a train and one of the things that’s really interesting about his journey across North Korea, a totalitarian police state.
And this is a kid who didn’t know which way was North and it really is an incredibly lucky trip that he made. But Shin had a couple of things in his advantage. He was very smart. He had this cunning sense of self-survival.
That’s why he had managed to survive in the camp. And he also was smart enough to keep his mouth shut. He didn’t tell anybody that he was from a camp. A few hours after he got through that fence he came to an old barn that nobody was around, he found some military clothes which he put on.
LAMB: This was in China?
HARDEN: This was in North Korea just outside the camp and North Korea is the most militarized society on earth with a million man Army.
LAMB: Out of 23 million?
HARDEN: Yes, it’s actually 1.2 or 1.3 million people so there are military uniforms in virtually every barn that you would find. So he found a military uniform, he found a change of clothes so he was no longer dressed like a camp inmate in distinctive clothes.
And he then walked into a town and he looked very much like a lot of young North Koreans. He was skinny, he was filthy, he was wearing an old military uniform and he didn’t have much to do. There are a lot of unemployed people who drift around in North Korea in the wake of the great famine there in 1990 when almost a million people died.
So North Korea at the lowest level is a very disorganized place where the food distribution system is very informal. It depends on smugglers from China, it depends on farmers selling food from cooperative farms when they’re not supposed to. And the North Korean government has no choice but to put up with this sort of messy informal market system because it’s the only way that people can eat.
There are estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the calories in the stomach of any North Korean come from this system now. So Shin fell into this system. He didn’t know it existed but he was lucky.
Within a few days he had broken into a house, stolen some more clothes, warmer clothes that and stolen a big bag of rice. I think it was a 10-pound bag of rice which he put in a backpack that he also stole.
And he walked past a market and a market lady said what have you got in the bag boy and he said I’ve got some rice. And she said well I’ll give you money for it. So he was given some wan and his was his first transaction with money.
Park had told him only a few weeks before that money existed. He sold the rice, got the money, bought some crackers and nuts and a few other things, snacks and went walking out of the town and saw some other traders who were basically moving north towards China to do more trading.
He fell in with them and that was his route out of China.
LAMB: Let’s go back to how you put all this together, how many hours did you talk to Shin to get this book?
HARDEN: I’m not sure how many hours but it was I think we had seven sessions of interviews and four of those sessions were week long sessions where we would start in the morning and end in the late afternoon.
LAMB: How did you document it?
HARDEN: Document it, well document the interviews or
LAMB: Yes, did you record them?
HARDEN: Yes, I recorded it all.
LAMB: On audio only?
HARDEN: On audio only and I also took notes on a computer simultaneously. And there is the question of verifying Mr. Shin’s story and it’s a very important one to deal with I think.
LAMB: Because you say in here he lied to you.
HARDEN: He lied to me. He lied to me about his role in betraying his mother. When he got to South Korea he did not say that he betrayed his mother. He simply said that they were executed and he saw it.
And the reason he didn’t was because when he got to South Korea he thought if he told that story the South Korean government might arrest him and certainly other people would think of him as not human.
Now that’s his words. So he decided that he would sort of you know expurgate his story a little bit. And he finally about a year into our interviews decided that he would tell me the truth. He said the reason he did it is because he was surrounded by people who were telling him the truth and who had who cared about him and he felt an obligation to tell the truth.
LAMB: When you see this photo of him which was taken I believe in Seattle.
LAMB: What do you see in that face from your knowledge of sitting with him somehow?
HARDEN: Well, what’s interesting about his face is that he looks so young given the hardships of his life.
LAMB: His age now?
HARDEN: He has aged a little bit.
LAMB: I mean no, I say his age now?
HARDEN: His age now, this was taken when he was 28 or 27. But when I met him just a couple of years before that I swear he looked like he was a teenager and I saw him yesterday and he just has he has a youthful look.
LAMB: How has he changed since you started talking to him?
HARDEN: He has become less wary, less suspicious and a little bit more at peace with himself because he has told the truth about his the betrayal of his mother. Yesterday we were talking about a human rights convention and he talked about selling out his mother.
And why he did it and what he hopes will come of the truth that he told. He wants people to know that this is the kind of human beings that they’re trying to raise in these camps. There is the human rights abuse of starving people, shooting people but there is also that of raising children to be little monster.
LAMB: Did you ever see him get mad at you?
HARDEN: He got mad at me because he didn’t want to talk about all this stuff. And I just you know journalists just want to keep drilling. I say in the book that it was like being a dentist and not using anesthetics. And it was painful and miserable for him and sometimes he would just say no and leave.
LAMB: Why do you think the American people will be interested in this book when you say in the book the South Koreans could care less about the North Koreans?
HARDEN: Well, the reason people will be interested in this book, is because it’s a great story. It’s an adventure story, it’s also a psychological story, because it’s about how a person goes from having no human emotions to figuring out that they’re a good idea and then developing it.
And it’s all sort of, you know, the normal trajectory of escape stories or of concentration camp stories is you have someone who comes from a sophisticated civilized family, they’re taken to the camp, all their other relatives are killed, they have to behave in an inhuman way to survive.
And then they come out and they tell their story about a decent into hell and then survival. Shin’s story is completely different because he was born in hell and thought it was home and thought the values that he learned there were what it was to be a human being.
And has now discovered that the world and what it means to be a human being are completely different.
LAMB: Why do the South Koreans not care about the North Koreans?
HARDEN: Well because they have moved on as a culture and as an economy. Their aspirations are for greater individual wealth, for technological achievement, North Korea, which exists in some ways in the Middle Ages, is a dead weight on those goals.
Their most of the family ties between North and South Korea have been attenuated by time and weakened by age, most of the people who have living relatives are in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. So the actual connections are just falling apart.
LAMB: Ran into some Germans the other day and I said how’s it going in your country? And they said ah not, you know, nothing. I said well, I said we read how well you’re doing. I said how about the East Germany. He said oh, they’re doing very well and then you realize how much it costs the West Germans to are they worried in South Korea that it’s going to cost them, you know, to pick up the 23 million people?
HARDEN: They’re very worried. There have been lots of studies by economic consulting groups, about the cost of it and there are estimated estimates that it could cost three times as much in comparable dollars to have unification with the North.
Because of the development problems in North Korea, if you fly over the Korean Peninsula at night, North Korea is light, China is light and you’ll see Japan off to the right, it’s light, it’s just dark in North Korea.
And that darkness is a good symbol of the stage of developments. There are very few roads, there’s education has education system has largely collapsed, there’s factories don’t work. The place is a basket case run by a militarized state that survives because of aide from China and because of the sales of missiles to places like Iran.
LAMB: We’re going to run out of time, I got make sure we get some of this on the record, you live where now?
HARDEN: I live in Seattle. I moved back to Seattle after leaving Tokyo.
LAMB: How old are you kids?
HARDEN: My kids are 7 and 9, turns 10 in June.
LAMB: Where’d you meet your wife?
HARDEN: I met her on a blind date in New York City.
LAMB: And Seattle, no more Washington Post, no more New York Times?
HARDEN: Right. I took a buyout from the Post and I’ve been working besides doing this book, I’ve been working for the Economist occasionally and occasionally for Frontline, PBS.
LAMB: And what kind of things have you done for Frontline?
HARDEN: I’ve worked on a program about a copper mine in Alaska.
LAMB: You have another book in mind?
HARDEN: I do.
LAMB: What is it about?
HARDEN: It might be about the copper mine in Alaska or it might be about my father’s generation and I’m not sure.
LAMB: So what do you expect Shin to do, will he what I mean by that, will he end up in South Korea permanently or will he come back to the United States and we haven’t mentioned the couple from Ohio.
HARDEN: The couple from Ohio’s been very important to Shin, they call themselves they he calls them his parents and they’re very happy with that. They read my piece in the Washington Post in December of 2008, they helped bring him to the United States and they’ve given him counseling, advice, love, and security.
And, you know, he’s not had that from older people.
LAMB: It’s (Lowell and Linda Dye).
HARDEN: (Lowell and Linda Dye).
LAMB: Of what city?
HARDEN: They’re from Columbus, Ohio.
LAMB: Why did they get into it though?
HARDEN: They are North Korea Human Rights Advocates. They’re devout Christians and they just got interested in this guy and sought him out.
LAMB: And where do you expect him to end up after all is said and done, he’s what about 30?
HARDEN: Yes, he’s 29 now. What I hope is that he will use the money from this book to get a bit more education and I would hope to learn English and to pursue his dream of as a human rights advocate on North Korea and other issues.
He has not done exactly as everyone hoped, you know, in terms of education, language, training, psychotherapy, you know, he’s his own individual person, and but he is now doing this Webcasting in South Korea and he’s very excited about it.
And he’s in a much better place now than he was when I first met him in 2008. And he’s thrilled that this book is selling in the United States and that people are learning about the camps. And that was the goal that was the reason he went through the misery of talking to me.
LAMB: Our guest has been Blaine Harden and his book is called Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. Thank you very much.
HARDEN: Thank you.