Category Archives: north korea

Book review: Escape from Camp 14, Blaine Harden

Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known escapee of Camp 14, with the author Blaine Harden

Shin Dong-hyuk didn’t know it was the dawn of a new year when on 2 January 2005 he used the frazzled corpse of his friend and mentor to help him clamber over a highly charged electric fence and escape from Kaechon internment camp. “Camp 14”, as it’s more systematically known, is said to be the most brutal of North Korea’s massive prison camps, although the state denies its existence. The camp has existed since 1959 – a lifespan 48 years longer than that of Auschwitz, to which it’s sometimes compared for its brutality. It’s a place where teenage boys are interrogated on spits over open fires, where babies conceived through rape are beaten to death with rods, where chemical weapons are said to be “tested” on the residents and where children are encouraged to beat one another to a pulp in order to curry favour with their teachers. Shin is the only prisoner ever known to have escaped.

About 5,000 miles away in Edinburgh, I’d just experienced my first Hogmanay celebration and was nursing the inaugural two-day hangover that came with it. I mention this triviality only because I’m roughly the same age as Shin and happen to recall what I was doing around the time he made his break from Camp 14, a fact which makes his story resonate with me all the louder. You see, Shin’s story isn’t something from the archives. The goriest experiences of his life are also being inflicted on others as you read. Half of the Korean peninsula is in the grips of a barbaric regime: the North is the world’s biggest prison and yet has been reduced to a caricature in the minds of many. Try typing “Kim Jong-il” into Google and the first two suggested search results are “Kim Jong-il looking at things” and “Kim Jong-il dropping the bass”.

The fact is, nobody ever talks about these camps, which is why Escape From Camp 14 is one of the most important books on international affairs you can read this year. It’s riveting, it’s horrifying and it’s vital. Shin’s very existence is the result of two prisoners being allowed to fornicate as a reward for working hard. He was worked to the bone, routinely beaten and starved since early childhood. A culture of paranoia pervaded in the camp: inmates may have received some extra food, or fewer beatings, for snitching on someone for stealing or slacking. Thus, upon hearing his brother and mother (in whose company he was permitted to spend a few nights a year) plotting an escape – the ultimate crime –  Shin told a prison guard. Far from being rewarded, though, he spent the ensuing months being routinely tortured in solitary confinement, before being forced to watch his mother and brother’s executions.

It wasn’t until years later – a matter of months before his escape – that he heard of North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, of South Korea, and of China for the first time. His eyes had been opened by another prisoner who, unlike Shin, had experienced life beyond Camp 14’s boundaries: the very same prisoner whose body Shin used to help hoist himself over the electric fence. Upon escaping, making his way over the Chinese border and fortuitously encountering a South Korean journalist in Shanghai who facilitated his repatriation to Seoul, Shin found that few wished to hear his story. His own memoir sold a mere 500 copies. Harden’s book has made it onto the New York Times’ and Wall Street Journal’s bestsellers lists and has helped to give Shin, now a human rights campaigner, the voice which millions before him have gone to their graves without.

The book, quite rightly, spares the reader none of the detail. There are passages that make the reader wince – Harden’s prose is plain and effective. Appropriately, there are no frills – just a vanilla retelling of Shin’s life, as bare and torturous as it should be. However, woven through the narrative is a potted history of North Korea and how it has floundered since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For those with little preexistent knowledge on the subject, this introduction may prove as disturbing as Shin’s story itself.

Far from being one of the world’s only surviving Communist states (a commonly held view), North Korea is an dictatorial kleptocracy and is now home to arguably the longest standing humanitarian crisis of our generation. Its relationship with China – which only tolerates the Kim dynasty because it provides a buffer between itself and the westernised South Korea – means that while western hawks are happy to broker war on Iran, Iraq, Libya and anyone else who fails to conform to their ideologies, intervention in North Korea isn’t an option: change must come from within and as such, progress is glacial.

Six years on from Shin’s escape, I found myself standing on the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. On the south side, in which I was then living, every inch of arable land was put to work. Fields of rice, corn and barley rolled out to meet the horizon. It was a lush cornucopia compared to the absolute desolation that confronted us on the other side, in which every living thing had been razed to ground level, so as to limit the chances of defectors making it across the DMZ.

It was, no doubt, thrilling (in a twisted, voyeuristic kind of way) being so close to the most secretive place on earth, but while our guide was more than happy to fill us in on the grimiest details of the Korean War, not once did he mention the imprisonment of thousands – if not millions – of North Koreans in camps like the one Shin was born into. Over the course of a year living in South Korea, the only person who offered me an opinion on the atrocities on the wrong side of the 38th Parallel was a Canadian teacher. Escape From Camp 14 is a brilliant read, but also a klaxon, alerting a mainstream audience to the plight of millions. For these reasons, it should be viewed as a monumental success.

Originally published here

The Calm at the Eye of the Storm: South Korean Kids on the Threat of North Korea

Korean School Kids: Oblivious

The news networks have gone into overdrive this week. The Korean Peninsula has once again come into focus for all the wrong reasons. By attacking the populated island of Yeonpyeong and killing four South Koreans, the North have made it clear that the accession of Kim Jong-un to Head of State will not signal an end to provocative, audacious behaviour.

It has been widely reported that the North have strengthened their nuclear position with the recent confirmation of uranium enrichment. The American scientist who visited the facility, however, has since warned against unnerving hysteria. Conservative commentators, too, have spoken out against sensationalizing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Isn’t that exactly what they want?

All the same, it’s brinkmanship that would test the mettle of many. For me, though, it’s served as a poignant reminder of how people live during times of ‘crisis’. It’s also highlighted the remarkable will that exists within humans to continue on with their lives, even when the world around them goes to pieces. Children, in particular, show impressive indifference in the face of adversity.

I’ve spent the past six months teaching in South Korea. I work in an academy in Gwangju, in the south west of the country. Whilst the international media has been reporting on the mood in Seoul, I have spent the past two days gauging opinion amongst the middle school teenagers I teach. The first thing I noticed is that not one child raised the issue of the North Korean attack when I inquired as to how they were, or how their day had been. The general reaction, when I raised the point, equated to: “oh, that!”

Further questioning revealed a mixture of disdain, sympathy, reactionary, half-hearted hatred and bemusement. But very few of the opinions were enforced with anything resembling conviction… more like eye rolling and heavy tutting.  There was little in the way of childish zeal; the sort one might expect if, say, America had been attacked by an enemy. Of course, I wasn’t grilling 11-year-olds for their opinions on the Korean Situation… I reserved it for the older kids. I wonder if I’d have encountered slightly more animation with the youngsters?

There seems to be a level of acceptance here that these things will, on occasion, happen. It’s apparent even whilst watching news broadcasts: compare those of CNN yesterday with Korean networks. Of course, this is huge news, but it seems as though folks aren’t as willing to get carried away. The calmness struck me as odd at first, but very quickly, I realized it was a sentiment I was well familiar with.


Yeonpyeong's Burning: Image by

I grew up in the 1980s and 90s in Northern Ireland: surrounded by The Troubles. It seemed like everyday someone had been shot dead; or a bomb had exploded somewhere. Sometimes when we’d be walking to or from school, we’d be greeted on the road by British soldiers, heavily armed. The town I lived in was often closed off because of bomb scares… occasionally, bombs. I was evacuated from a cinema in 1998 whilst playing pool. About an hour later, a huge fireball came rushing towards us at the top of the hill. The bomb had exploded. It probably never came anywhere near us, but it felt like it was right on my arse!

I had a laugh about the incident in school on Monday with friends. Nobody was shocked or surprised… these kind of things just happened. I only realized things like this weren’t normal when I left Ireland for the first time (also in 1998) and went to America. People would ask me how it was, living in Northern Ireland, as if it was a war-zone. I laughed at the very thought… “sure, it’s normal!” Would be the reply. And to me, it was.

‘Normal’ is whatever moment of history we are born into. This week I’ve had messages and emails from home asking me about the situation here.

“What’s going on?”

“It sounds terrible!”

“Is there going to be a war?”

“You’ll be on the first plane home!”

Probably the exact worries people had about our own circumstance in Northern Ireland ten or fifteen years ago. Without trying to make little of what is undoubtedly an anxious, lamentable time, Kim Jong-il was pulling stunts like this when my students were born. As shocking as it may be, for most of them, it’s unsurprising. One of the foibles of conflict still rings true today: the kids are alright.


Now, enjoy this short audio clip of Sarah Palin promising support for our “North Korean allies” on Glenn Beck’s radio show.

Take a trip to the DMZ


Everybody comes to Korea with a list of things they want to do, see and accomplish as long as their arm. Taking in Asia seems to crop up on most of them, along with learning the language, taking up Taekwondo and, of course, saving money. But anybody with of a passing interest in history (or a slight penchant for voyeurism) is guaranteed to make a trip to the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South. That it featured so highly on my own list is slightly worrying, but I’m happy to have checked it off and in the process of doing so, I had one of the most sobering, surreal experiences of my life.


There are various trips to choose from, each with their own selling points and packages. I was sold on Adventure Korea’s promise to take me off the beaten track. Rolling through the deserted countryside beyond the civilian control point that precedes the DMZ, I felt reassured that they had kept their side of the bargain, but a slight unease at the eeriness of the surroundings.

The once bustling metropolis of Cheorwan has long since been reduced to a ghost town. Stray machinery peppers the endless rows of rice paddies, conceivably abandoned at the outbreak of war, but more probably by the farmers who must leave the zone before their curfew. It amounts to a whole lot of suspense before we reach the first point of the tour, the Second Tunnel.

One hundred and forty five metres deep and 3.5 kilometres long, the tunnel was intercepted 1.1 kilometres in to South Korean territory in 1975 and had the power to transport 16,000 soldiers an hour under the border. The figure beggars belief. I have to crouch as I make my way down to its base, wondering how long it would’ve taken to carve this into the rock. The guide reveals, to gasps of astonishment, that there is an estimated twenty other tunnels like this yet to be unearthed, but that despite the recent decline in relations, they don’t anticipate an invasion. His words emphasize just how volatile the Korean situation is.

The centerpiece of the tour is a visit to the Cheorwan Observation Centre, situated a mere stone’s throw from the DMZ, with a bird’s eye view of North Korea. Of course, there is scant opportunity to see what life is actually like in the most secluded country on earth, but the little we can see is equal parts fascinating and shocking. On the South Korean side, the farmland is lush, the vegetation rich; a reflection of an age of prosperity. It’s in marked contrast with what we see on the other side.

On the entry point to North Korea, the thriving nature reserve that has been created by default in the DMZ comes to an abrupt halt. Everything living has been flattened, lest it provide camouflage for anyone attempting to escape across the border. There is a North Korean army base visible, looming disturbingly large on a hilltop. The smoke of a fire evidently lit by there soldiers rose towards the sky. Since I’ve been in Korea (actually, since long before it), I have wondered about the North and the peninsula’s situation. Being within such proximity was surreal and if truth be told, thrilling.

Traveling to the DMZ was a worthwhile experience: interesting and enlightening… and, yes, fun. However, it would be advisable to keep your expectations in check. You will not see anything you’re not supposed to, so be realistic… if you manage to do so, you’ll be in for a real treat.

Written for Say Kimchi News

The Korean Penunsula Takes On The World

World Cup preview piece written for The Impartial Reporter

At some point in the wee hours of November 19th last year, my anger diffused. The nation, nay, the world had been outraged by the ‘Hand of Gaul’ incident that sent Ireland crashing from the World Cup Play Off. Calls for Henry’s head on a plate reverberated around the land. But in a moment of rare clarity, I decided that it wasn’t so bad after all. After all, come the time of the World Cup, I would be settling into my new home 6,000 miles away, in South Korea. And for the first time in history, both North and South sides of the peninsula have qualified. “This,” I thought to myself, “is not bad at all.”

Koreans, like many of their East Asian counterparts, don’t do things in half measures. They’re an emotional, patriotic and jingoistic nation on all fronts. Just as the current political and military showdown with North Korea has understandably awakened a fervent nationalism, the very mention of a World Cup is likely to send a Korean into raptures. There are discerning football fans in South Korea. Some are as devoted as those born on Old Trafford’s doorstep. And so, they when asked on their team’s chances in the tournament, they’ll consider it for a while and offer an intelligent opinion. Spain, Brazil and England are the usual suspects.

But for many, the opportunity to look no further than their own noses is too great. “Han-googo! Han-googo!” (“Korea! Korea!”) You see, baseball is king here. Kia Tigers, my local team, are dominant. My local professional football team is Gwangju Sangmu, the army team. They aren’t very good (eleven soldiers, employing a distasteful long ball approach is little match for the top dogs of Seoul) and so interest in football all year round is minimal. Last month I went to see a K League game in the Guus Hiddink World Cup Stadium, twenty minutes from my apartment. As the name suggests, it was constructed for the 2002 World Cup here and paid host to the Quarter Final between South Korea and Spain, which the home side won on penalties. But the game (a drab 1-0 home victory) was abject at best. The 44,000-seater stadium paid host to fewer than 2,000 and the whole thing had an anti-climactic feel to it and the stadium has the unwanted glow of a white elephant.

Accordingly, most peoples’ views on the beautiful game are a trifle warped. Park Ji Sung is the best player in the world. Bolton Wanderers star Lee Chung Yong isn’t far behind him. Unfortunately for them, it simply isn’t true. A Korean team is highly unlikely to lift the 2010 World Cup; North or South. North Korea is the most mysterious nation to have lined up at this, or any edition of FIFA’s top blue riband showpiece. Reports on their warm-up games have suggest that they will compete with an ultra-defensive mentality, in an attempt to stifle the opposition. By all accounts, they are a better side than expected. They will hope to frustrate, but a quick glance at their draw for the group stages suggests that’s about all they can hope for. Their draw of Portugal, Ivory Coast and Brazil is the toughest of the lot.

South Korea, on the other hand, has a little more cause for optimism. They reached the semi final stage in 2002 (albeit with some dubious and hotly contested referring decisions). They have got players, in the aforementioned Park and Lee, as well as 2002 hero Ahn Jung Hwan (formerly Perugia, Metz and Duisburg) and Park Chu Young (Monaco), with genuine European experience. The draw too has been kinder to them, pitting them against Nigeria, Greece and Argentina; second place is all to play for. A victory in the backyard of bitter rivals Japan in the run up to the tournament only heightened World Cup fever. A couple of wins in the tournament would see things reach boiling point.

But after the tournament, things will more than likely return to normal. Any Western game featuring a Korean will be big news, but most other football will play second fiddle to baseball. The profile of the game here has certainly risen since 2002, but perhaps not to the level the local FA and FIFA would have hoped. Despite this, the government has launched an ambitious bid to host the 2022 event on their own. There’s no doubting that they have the infrastructure in place. 2002’s tournament was spread thinly over eleven cities here, each with brand new stadiums; and that was only as a co-host! With worries over South Africa’s readiness for this year’s Cup and Brazil’s capability to network the vast country for 2014’s, FIFA could do a lot worse than to look once more to the Hermit Kingdom. It boasts the fastest train system in the world and is easily navigable. Perhaps it would finally give the game the final push it needs to become top dog.

For the moment, though, the focus is on the here and now. If, after the miserable failure of Northern and Republic of Ireland, you’re looking for a late horse to back, look no further than the Korean duo. You never know, you might be surprised!