The Great Escape: Born in a North Korean Prison, Shin Dong-hyuk Hits the Book Circuit

At 6:39 on Thursday night, as the North Korean military was desperately watching a long-range Taepodong-2 missile disintegrate shortly after lift off, its remnants tumbling harmlessly into the Yellow Sea, a group of the regime’s opponents were crowded into the Korea Society’s Midtown East headquarters.

But weapons proliferation wasn’t even on the agenda. Instead, the crowd had gathered to hear Shin Dong-hyuk, a handsome and soft-spoken, 29-year-old North Korean refugee, talk about his life.

Mr. Shin was joined by Blaine Harden, the foreign correspondent and author of Escape From Camp 14, published by Viking last month. Four years in the making, the book describes Mr. Shin’s life inside a hellish political gulag and escape into an equally dystopian North Korea, with the hope of expanding Americans’ awareness of the country beyond Kim Jong-un’s bouffant.

There was a selection of cheese on hand and the reading was followed by a question-and-answer session, but otherwise, this was not a typical book tour stop.

For one thing, Mr. Shin’s appearance had not been widely publicized. Emotionally volatile, nightmare-prone and pathologically sensitive to criticism, he can get overwhelmed. If that sounds like standard writerly neurosis, consider that in the first 23 years of Mr. Shin’s life—spent entirely in the confines of a prison camp—he saw only one book. It was a Korean grammar, in the hands of a primary school teacher who wore a guard’s uniform, toted a pistol, and beat one of Mr. Shin’s 6-year-old classmates to death with a wooden pointer for having five stolen kernels of corn in her pocket.

Toward the end of the Q&A, one wonky type asked Mr. Shin what he made of South Korea’s young leftist movement, which he said favors reconciliation with the North. As he answered, the Korean speakers in the back laughed first.

“Those that praise and like North Korea,” his translator began, filling the rest of us in, “they should just go live there.”

After a marathon book signing, Mr. Harden marveled at how Mr. Shin had changed since they concluded interviews eight months ago. His extemporaneous eloquence, his posture, that joke—this was a updated model of the Mr. Shin whose trust it took him years to earn.

“It’s like he’s taken a four-year course in being a human being,” Mr. Harden said over burgers at nearby P.J. Clarke’s. “He’s done pretty well.”

Mr. Harden was a little weary from a week of radio interviews, which had revealed that more than three years after he first wrote about Mr. Shin in The Washington Post, most Americans remain unaware of the estimated 150,000 imprisoned North Koreans being starved, beaten and worked to death in mines and factories on charges of political dissent, or simply for being related to someone charged.

“Nobody really has any idea this is going on, even though it’s hiding in plain sight,” Mr. Harden said. The gulags, whose existence North Korea denies, are plainly visible on Google Earth.

“It’s clear what’s going on, and it’s clear that the U.S. hasn’t said shit about this,” Mr. Harden said. “They’re scared that if they do they won’t be able to talk in their halting way about nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.”

Although Mr. Harden no longer works for The Post, he still views himself as a journalist rather than as a political advocate.  (Mr. Harden and Mr. Shin will split any profits 50-50.)

“If someone went to Nazi Germany and said, ‘This is terrible,’ I don’t think they’re being an advocate,” Mr. Harden said. “They’re a journalist.”

It’s no exaggeration to compare North Korean labor camps to Buchenwald or Stalin’s gulags. But Mr. Shin’s story confirms what questionable Holocaust memoirs like Angel at the Fence and Fragments suggested: first-person accounts of human rights atrocities are easier to sell than they are to verify.

According to the psychologists who treat refugees in South Korea, Mr. Harden said, clinical paranoia is a common and even healthy adaptation to life in North Korea. Which makes North Koreans tricky sources. Some demand money up front for information, tell reporters what they think they want to hear or relay rumors.

The only escapee to have been born in a prison camp, Mr. Shin has the added pressure of speaking for the prisoners raised to snitch on their neighbors and work until they die, never having experienced freedom.

For fact-checking, Mr. Harden consulted defectors, human rights specialists, NGOs and former guards. They confirmed the general outline of Mr. Shin’s story. One guard noted that Mr. Shin had a “relatively comfortable life by the standards of other children in the camps.”

And then there’s his body. “It’s a road map to his story,” Mr. Harden said.

From growing up on starvation-level rations of corn porridge and cabbage soup, Mr. Shin is a slight 5’6″. His arms are bowed from 12- to 15-hour workdays. His right middle finger is missing; it was cut off as punishment for a dropped sewing machine. His back and ankles are scarred from being strung up over a fire while guards interrogated him about his mother and brother’s failed escape plan (he was 13) and his shins are mutilated from his own escape.

By the time Mr. Harden heard about Mr. Shin from human rights activists in Japan, where he was stationed as East Asia bureau chief at The Post, he had already been interviewed by the International Herald Tribune and even published his own, little-read memoir. He had spoken at Google headquarters.

“He was not unfamiliar with guys like me,” Mr. Harden said, “pasty-faced white guys who wanted to know how terrible it all was.”

Published in The Post, Mr. Shin’s story was terrible enough to prompt an Ohio family to sponsor Mr. Shin’s move to the United States. But Mr. Harden wouldn’t know how just terrible it really was for years.

Initially, Mr. Shin said his mother and brother had been executed in front of him when he was a teenager, for plotting to escape Camp 14. But in August 2010, living among new and trusted friends in Southern California, Mr. Shin summoned Mr. Harden, Hannah Song, his nonprofit liaison and a translator. He had something to tell them.

He wanted them to know that he was responsible for the deaths of his mother and brother. One night, Mr. Shin had awoken to find them eating rice and conspiring to escape. Scared and jealous, he snitched to a prison guard in exchange for extra food and fewer beatings at school.

“I am one of the mean people,” Mr. Shin told them.

Mr. Harden was shocked. “As a writer, all the sudden the story has a layer of psychological complexity,” he said.

Elie Wiesel knew enough about humanity to note its absence in Buchenwald. Born into Camp 14, Mr. Shin had never associated the words “mother” and “brother” with “loyalty” or “love.” He was conditioned to see them as competitors for survival. His father later told him he’d been smart not to risk the punishment for failing to report an escape attempt, which is immediate execution.

“That is an insight that is completely new to the camps and I think is the chilling heart of the book,” Mr. Harden said.

Escape From Camp 14 contains no shortage of chilling moments. We haven’t even gotten to the nutritional value of rats or the reliability of the human body as an electrical conductor—both of which were crucial to Mr. Shin’s survival. But considering how hard the story is to bear, the book is a surprisingly effortless read. Mr. Harden said he rewrote it over and over to make it as comprehensible and transparent as possible, so readers “plow” through it.

But will Escape be the story compelling enough to make people care about a remote tragedy? To do what A Long Way Gone did for child soldiers in Sierra Leone or We Wish to Inform You did for Rwandan genocide?

As the Kony 2012 campaign demonstrated, the ability to share news publicly on social media seems to have whet the national appetite for stories that shed light on distant atrocities.

Last week Mr. Shin filmed a segment for Fox News and this week, Escape cracked the nonfiction best-seller list.

“I feel I’ve found the best story I’ve come across in 32 years as a journalist,” Mr. Harden said. “It’s the best story I’ve ever heard.”

The Great Escape: Born in a North Korean Prison, Shin Dong-hyuk Hits the Book Circuit