book reviews

Repost of my review of Escape from Camp 14…

Here’s a repost of a book review I wrote for on July 12, 2012, and reposted on Blogspot version of this blog. It appears as/is.

From October 28, 2014:

I went through a phase a few years ago and read a bunch of books about North Korea.  This morning, I read an article on CNN written by Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known person to grow up in and escape a North Korean prison camp.  He has been labeled “human scum” by North Korea’s leaders.  They claim that his description of what life is like in a North Korean prison camp is a pack of lies. 

I found Escape from Camp 14, Shin Dong-hyuk’s book, extremely fascinating.  Aside from having an amazing story to tell, Shin Dong-hyuk is a talented artist.  You can see some of his drawings on the CNN article, though I must warn that they are basically artistic depictions of how prisoners are treated in North Korea.  Some people may find them disturbing.  I did find them a bit graphic, yet I also marveled at Shin Dong-hyuk’s talents and I’m glad he is now free to share them with the rest of the world. 

From 2012:

For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated with stories about North Korea, one of the world’s most opaque countries. That’s why I felt compelled to read journalist Blaine Harden’s new book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West(2012). This book is the true story of a young man named Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born and raised in Camp 14, an oppressive North Korean political prison and later managed to escape. Though I had a feeling that parts of Escape from Camp 14 would probably depress me, I figured that ultimately the story would end on a somewhat triumphant note. And again, I think oppressive regimes are oddly fascinating.

Who is Shin Dong-hyuk and why was he raised in prison?

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in 1982, the second son of parents who had somehow managed to be allowed to get married. Shin’s parents didn’t marry because they loved each other. They married because they were being rewarded for doing something good. Sex between inmates at Camp 14 was forbidden, except between married couples. After their wedding, the happy couple was allowed five nights together; then they were separated and Shin’s father was allowed to visit periodically. Shin’s older brother was born in 1974 and by the time Shin was old enough to remember much, he had already been sent to live in a boy’s dormitory. When Shin was still a very young boy, he too was sent to live in a dorm. It wasn’t too big of a deal, though, since Shin didn’t have much of a bond with his mother, anyway. They were too busy working to form a bond.

In North Korea, people who commit crimes against the state are severely punished. So are their families. A person who gets caught doing something illegal will go to prison and so will his or her parents, siblings, and any children. The whole family pays for one person’s actions; consequently, there’s a lot of peer pressure to be on one’s best behavior. Shin was born in the prison and never knew any other life, mainly because two uncles tried to escape North Korea back in 1951. Shin’s childhood was spent working, starving, and being beaten and indoctrinated. He spent those years fearing for his life; for the punishment for disobedience was being shot on the spot. When Shin accidentally broke a sewing machine, he paid for it by sacrificing part of a finger. 

When Shin was 13, his mother and brother attempted to escape Camp 14. Shin overheard their plans. Like any good North Korean prisoner, Shin felt compelled to alert the authorities. Not alerting the authorities of an escape attempt meant being shot. The guards were able to stop the escape attempt and Shin was rewarded by being tortured and interrogated. Then, he and his father were forced to watch as his mother and brother were executed. He was not sad to see them die. He thought they were selfish for putting him in the position to have to tell on them.

It took Shin months to recover from the injuries he suffered while he was being tortured. During that time, he met a man who told him about life outside of the camp. Shin was fascinated that there was a world beyond the electrified fence. But he also knew that the fence was deadly and would kill him if he tried to flee. And if he was caught even thinking about escaping, he would be shot. 

Years later, Shin met another man who told him more about the world outside the fence. Shin found himself obsessed with the notion of escaping. With his new friend’s help, Shin hatched an escape plan and successfully escaped the political prison in 2005. Harden relates Shin’s amazing story of breaking out of the North Korean camp and eventually making it to South Korea, then the United States.

My thoughts  

Whenever I start to feel badly about my own life, all I have to do is remember what Shin Dong-hyuk has already endured in his 30 years on the planet. He grew up starving, friendless, and without much of a family, imprisoned for crimes he had nothing to do with. Against all odds, he broke free to go to a new country that for most of his life, he had no idea even existed. Adjusting to that new life in rich, opulent South Korea was extremely difficult. And then when he went to the United States to tell other people about his life in Camp 14, he had a hard time adjusting… and relating to other people. 

Harden’s done a great job with Shin’s story, maintaining an objective yet compassionate tone as he describes the atrocities Shin and other prisoners endured. It makes any problems I face seem trivial. This book took a long time to read and was, at times, a bit depressing. It’s not pleasant to read about innocent people being starved, beaten, and brainwashed. However, I have to admire Shin’s courage for escaping, even as he experienced guilt knowing that his father would certainly be punished for his escape… and the man who came with him on his break for freedom ultimately ended up being killed by the electric fence. Shin used the man’s body to insulate him against the electricity– without that dead body, Shin never would have made it to freedom. He’s paid a price, though, through constant nagging guilt. At this writing, Shin Dong-hyuk is the only person known to have managed to escape prison and defect from North Korea.

At the end of this book, Harden includes drawings Shin did that depict the horrors of Camp 14. I found the crude drawings haunting and horrifying. There are also photos.


I would definitely recommend Escape from Camp 14 to anyone who is interested in North Korea or likes true stories about overcoming adversity. This is not a happy book, but I found it fascinating to read and I definitely rooted for Shin Dong-hyuk.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

book reviews

Repost: A review of A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea

This book review appeared on my original blog on March 13, 2018. I am reposting it as/is.

I am fascinated by true stories, especially ones that involve survival against all odds.  I just finished A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea, a book written by Masaji Ishikawa and beautifully translated by Risa Kobayashi and Martin Brown.  This book was published on January 1, 2018 and already has a couple thousand reviews, most of which are very positive.  I am about to add my own very positive review of this very harrowing tale of survival.

Born in 1947 in Kawasaki, Japan, Masaji Ishikawa had a Japanese mother and a South Korean father, along with two sisters.  Ishikawa’s father was a violent alcoholic who brutalized his family and his enemies.  Because of his tendency to get into fights, Ishikawa’s father was known as “Tiger”.  He was belligerent and had few friends in Japan, which is likely why he was lured to repatriate to North Korea when his son, Masaji, was only thirteen years old.

Although the senior Ishikawa was not from the north, he was attracted by the claims that North Korea was a worker’s paradise.  And though his wife and children were not that enthusiastic about the move, it was settled and the Ishikawas were soon on their way.  It wasn’t long before they realized what a mistake it was to go back to Korea.  They left a life of relative comfort for one of abject poverty.  Very soon, “Tiger” found out that he couldn’t fight his way out of sticky situations anymore.  The government took everything from them.  Very soon, what little they brought with them from Japan was gone and they had to struggle hard every day just to survive.

Making matters worse was the fact that the Koreans looked down on the Japanese people who were there and the “returners”; that is, Koreans who repatriated to North Korea from Japan.  They were relegated to worse jobs and not educated as well.  Ishikawa’s family was given a “nice” house– nice, only because it had a tiled roof.  One day, a friend of the family’s came over, got drunk, and smoked a cigarette in bed.  He passed out and his cigarette caused a fire.  The house went down in flames and the family was forced to build a new one completely by themselves, right down to cutting down the trees used for the walls and roof.

Ishikawa writes of the trouble he had finding love.  He fell in love with one woman, but her family wouldn’t accept him because he was Japanese.  Later, he was paired up with a woman whom he described as “not beautiful”.  Their union lasted a year, long enough for her to present him a son.  Then she begged for a divorce and left him with the boy to raise on his own

He did manage to find a second wife, one with whom he was more compatible.  She could not live with him for some time, though, because she was caring for her grandmother.  They eventually had two more children.  Meanwhile, one of his sisters came home, having been cast out by her husband.  She was pregnant and had his two sons from a prior relationship with her.

I’m not sure how much input the translators had in how this book was written, but I found Ishikawa’s writing very compelling.  The book is written in the first person and is in a conversational tone, as if he’s sitting next to you talking to you about his experiences.  He seems like a very likable person, even when he becomes so desperately unhappy that he contemplates suicide.  Indeed, he was in the middle of his attempt when a co-worker– a guy who had the same job burning coal– came upon the author and saved his life.

That was only the first of several times when Ishikawa avoided what should have been certain death.  The story leads up to his dramatic and unlikely escape from North Korea in 1996.  Originally, he’d planned to try to save his family.  They were all starving to death.  Since Ishikawa was actually Japanese, he got help from unlikely sources… and ultimately, he lived to tell the tale.

Honestly, what really got to me was his description of what it was like to slowly starve.  He explains the desperate lengths people went to simply to subsist in a place where there simply wasn’t any food at all.  He writes of boiling pine bark for as long as possible to prevent the toxins from poisoning him.  Then, once he choked down the pine bark, which had been fashioned into something roughly resembling a rice cake, he suffered through gut pain and constipation so severe that he had to manually dislodge his fecal matter from his anus.  He explains how frustrating it is to read posters made by the government, instructing people on how to make their meager rations last longer so they could keep working.  And, of course, all of the posters included multiple exclamation points.  They were probably made by people who had relatively plenty to eat.

Ishikawa describes the physical changes that occur when a person starves.  For example, the fat on the lips and nose go away when starvation is extreme.  When the lips are gone, the teeth are plainly visible in a macabre fashion.  Ishikawa had to see his children looking like that.  He escaped because he wanted to rescue them.  Alas, escape to Japan was not all it was cracked up to be, either.  Now he’s left wondering what has become of his two surviving sons; he learned that his wife and daughter died, but lost contact with the son who had informed him.  He also has grandchildren languishing in North Korea.

I have read a lot of books about life in North Korea.  This book is one that will probably stay with me for a long time.  It’s not a story about being in a concentration camp, though those are compelling enough.  This is a story about a group that we don’t often hear about.  This was a man who, unlike most North Koreans, had knowledge of what it was like to be outside of the country.  He remembered a good life in Japan, even if his father was a brute.  He spent 36 years behind the fortified borders in North Korea, living the life of someone less than the average joe, yet not truly incarcerated.  

Needless to say, I heartily recommend A River in Darkness, if you can stand to reach such material.  It’s a very blunt look at what people in North Korea are living with under their current regime.  Perhaps it’s also a cautionary tale of what could happen to any of us if we allow tyrants to maintain power.  Five stars from me.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from from sales made through my site.

book reviews

A review of The Girl With Seven Names…

Hi, folks. I am currently on tiny Hebridean Princess in Wick, Scotland. We’re on a whisky themed cruise, so we’ll be hitting eight distilleries this week. We visited our first one, Old Pulteney, this morning. I probably won’t be writing so much over the next few days, but I did want to write a review of The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyenseo Lee and her ghost writer, David John, before I forget too much. This story, which was published in 2015 in the wake of Lee’s riveting TED talk, is one that is almost too hard to believe. And yet, it’s a true story of one woman’s unlikely exodus from North Korea.

Hyenseo Lee, now married to American Brian Gleason, was born in North Korea in 1980. Her birth was complicated, not because her mother went through serious medical issues, but because of songbun. Songbun is a Korean concept of social order. Lee’s mom had met the love of her life on a train to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, where only the most loyal, highest ranking North Koreans are allowed to live. She was on her way to see a relative when she ran into a North Korean soldier who was charmed by her ability to sing. They traded addresses, but lost touch for awhile. When Lee’s grandmother found out, she was against the relationship because the soldier didn’t have enough songbun. Lee’s mom was married to another man– a handsome, high ranking man, with whom she had no chemistry. They conceived Hysenseo– given a different name at birth– but the marriage disintegrated soon afterward. A few years later, when Lee’s mom married the soldier from the train, her name was changed again.

Lee grew up thinking her mom’s second husband was her real father. She was devastated when she learned the truth, particularly since she had a brother who was only her “half” brother. The family suffered a house fire, but Lee’s dad was careful to remove the portraits of beloved North Korean leaders. If he hadn’t, the family would have been punished. They had to hang the portraits in their home, clean them lovingly, and guard them with their lives. And when Kim Jong Sung died in 1994, everyone had to look gutted, even if they weren’t. Because not looking gutted by the death… not crying or being hysterical… could mean imprisonment, torture, or even death.

Then, when she was still young, the man she knew as her father was murdered by the North Korean government. Officially, it was called a suicide, though, and that was very shameful and had a deleterious effect on the family’s songbun. Lee’s mom paid a bribe to get the cause of death changed. Lee witnessed many atrocious acts against people. She saw her first public execution at age 7, and writes that people felt obligated to attend the executions of people they knew. It was kind of like going to a funeral.

When she was nearing 18 years of age, in 1997, Lee decided she wanted to cross the Yalu River into China. She was friends with a border guard who really liked her, and because she wasn’t yet 18, she could get away with things adults couldn’t. One night, after dinner, she slipped out and cross the river into China. She decided to stop by the home of a smuggler, with whom her mother had business dealings. She got a wild idea to see family she hadn’t seen in years, even though it was 8 hours away. She went to see her family, who weren’t expecting her. She saw what a much easier life they led. She learned that she’d been told lies her whole life and that there was a whole world out there for her. She stayed… and turned 18, which made potential punishments much worse if she had gone back home. She missed home, especially her family, but she had to find work in China.

Fortunately, Lee’s father had taught her to write in Chinese… fortunately, she was uncommonly bright and resourceful. Lee found her name changing again, as she posed as a Korean Chinese woman, hiding her North Korean identity. I was amazed as I read about how the winsome Lee managed to escape so many situations that could have either gotten her imprisoned or killed. Her name would change four more times before she finally settled on one that worked.

The Girl With Seven Names is truly an amazing story. I used to be able to read books quickly, but lately that’s been more of a challenge. This book was quick and easy to read, even though it’s a very convoluted tale that includes many concepts, like songbun, that have to be explained. Lee’s ghostwriter, David John, has done a fantastic job making this story seem as if it came straight from Lee herself. I was marveling at how well written it is, and what a pleasure it was to read this book.

Pictures are included, even in the Kindle version. If you like books about North Korea, or North Korean defectors, this is a very good one to have. I was continually surprised by how smart, resourceful, tough, and determined Lee is… even to the point of getting her family out of North Korea.

Highly recommended!

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

Duggars, North Korea

Dear Leader…

Last night, I was hanging out in the Life is Not All Pickles and Hairspray Group and someone shared a screenshot of a post Jinger Duggar Vuolo wrote to her parents. Here’s my screenshot of the screenshot.

Hmm… she’s thanking her parents for caring for her physical needs? Isn’t that what is normally expected of parents? Why thank them for doing what they’re supposed to do?

I’m not sure what the occasion for this posting was. Maybe Jinger really was just overcome with love, devotion, appreciation, and remorse for making any demands on her overloaded parents… Maybe she posted it because we’ve come upon a significant religious holiday. Maybe parenthood has given her perspective? I don’t know. However, my first thought when I read it was that it reminded me a little of the rote devotion North Koreans have for their “dear leader”.

Some years ago, I watched a fascinating documentary about North Korea. It was made by Lisa Ling, a brave, ambitious, and stealthy reporter who had somehow managed to bring a tiny camera into the country and record things most foreign visitors to North Korea will never see. Ling posed as a medical coordinator and, at great risk to her personal safety, enlightened the world.

A couple of years later, Ling’s younger sister, Laura Ling, along with Euna Lee, were in China working on a documentary about North Korean defectors. The two women were captured on March 17, 2009, when they were at the border of Chinese and North Korea. The two women followed their guide, who had walked across the frozen river toward the North Korean border. As they were heading back to Chinese soil, North Korean soldiers chased after the two women. They were dragged back to North Korea and taken to prison, where they were eventually sentenced to twelve years hard labor. Both women were released after an intervention by Bill Clinton, and both wrote books about the ordeal. I read both of their books, though it was years ago.

Laura Ling talks about being a prisoner in North Korea.

I’m not sure why Jinger Vuolo’s post to Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar reminds me so much of North Korea. I mean, although I would say the Duggars live a cult-like existence, and although they used to denounce television and Internet access, they have taken to social media like ducks to water. North Koreans do not have any access to the outside world. I have a feeling that had the Duggars not wound up famous, they would be similarly isolated. Perhaps they wouldn’t have had 19 children, either. I do kind of wonder if the adult children hang a picture of Boob and Michelle in their homes, like North Koreans do of their “dear leader”. But maybe Jinger’s post is entirely sincere. I’m sure she is grateful to them… even as she seems to be rejecting their lifestyle more than some of the other Duggar children have.

Then I remember what life was like for the oldest Duggar kids, who were forced to share beds, clothes, and and stand in line for tater tot casseroles. I think about how Jinger and three of her sisters were molested by their brother, who was never really punished for his actions. Although Josh Duggar was himself still a child when he was abusing his sisters, he never got any legitimate treatment for his issues. Years later, he was forced to confess to cheating on his wife, Anna, when his account on Ashley Madison, a notorious Web site for married people who want to cheat, was exposed to the world.

When Jinger said on an episode of 19 Kids and Counting that she wanted to move to a big city, Michelle Duggar was quick to interject and clarify, assuring viewers that Jinger would simply prefer to live closer to a Walmart. There’s no way any Duggar child could want to live life on his or her own terms. Duggarland is “paradise”, just like North Korea is.

Although the molested sisters supposedly never got any help after they were “touched” by Josh, they somehow miraculously healed. I did notice, however, that after that news broke, all of the affected sisters were quickly married off. And yet, though they were married, they were all still working for Boob, living in his houses, and bearing his grandchildren, whose arrivals were carefully documented on reality television. Only Jinger and Josh have been able to break away from Duggarland for any length of time, although it looks like Jill and Derick have just bought a house in another town in Arkansas. Overall, the message seems to be, stay close to home, under Dad’s thumb. Stay faithful to the “dear leader”, or there will be hell to pay. Or, at least that’s my impression. Maybe I’m wrong.

Image is very important to the Duggars, just like it is in North Korea. Visit North Korea as a foreigner, and the view that is offered is the sanitized version, complete with “minders” who control everything seen and heard. Step out of line in North Korea and you could wind up being imprisoned. I’m sure that punishment is also swift within the Duggar family. It’s as if the parents need constant stroking and acknowledgement from their children, to prove to everyone how wonderful they are… or to continue the delusion.

I remember how wholesome the Duggar family used to seem, before Josh’s sex scandals came to light. A number of my friends loved the Duggar family and would defend them to me whenever I snarked on them. I’m a student of human behavior, and I notice things. People often insist on their version of the truth, but deny that up to 80% of communication is non-verbal. I remember even back in the days before Josh was outed as a “sex pest”, there were subtle non-verbal cues that all was not okay. And the Duggars, bless them, are not gifted actors… although some of them are better than others.

In watching Lisa Ling’s Inside North Korea documentary, I see North Koreans crying and praising their “dear leader”. The surreal spectacle made Ling wonder if they truly felt they were “blessed” by their leader, or if they knew that if they didn’t praise him, they would suffer the consequences. Perhaps it’s a little of both. I know that in many abusive situations, people don’t always know what’s happening. They become divorced from reality, because they are isolated from anyone who might question it. Although some North Koreans know there’s a whole world out there, others don’t. For all they know, anything they get from their leader is a miracle of providence. Most of them are probably ignorant to the idea of providing for themselves, making their own decisions, and admiring people who truly inspire them.

It’s no secret that the Duggars, despite their fame, are pretty insulated people. They don’t hang out with people who aren’t like them. They don’t read a lot of books that aren’t about their brand of Christianity. Likewise… the North Koreans aren’t exposed to anything that would challenge what they see and experience. Anyone who visits North Korea is given a very planned experience– cute, well-chosen North Korean children singing and dancing for them instead of impromptu conversations with their parents.

I do have a sense that Jinger is being exposed to more since she married Jeremy Vuolo. Jeremy is probably the worldliest of the guys who have married Duggar women. He’s been a social drinker, was once arrested, and attended secular colleges before he became a professional soccer player. He lets Jinger wear pants, which is actual news! Now, he’s moving their little family– which at this writing just consists of them and their daughter, Felicity, to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the other adult Duggar kids are staying close to home in Arkansas, pumping out babies, and working for dad… the “dear leader”.

I’m sure Jinger truly loves her parents. I’m sure she’s grateful for everything they’ve done for her. However, whenever I see these public declarations of love on social media, I have to wonder what motivates people to write them. To me, it’s akin to the folks who film themselves declaring their love to tiny children at weddings. The declarations are much less about the tiny kids, who probably aren’t any the wiser, than they are the people in attendance. It’s all a big show.

Narcissists love a big show. They like public displays of love and gratitude. They like recognition from the masses. Public postings of love, devotion, and gratitude from the Duggar children could be completely done spontaneously, but something tells me they’re “encouraged” to do this. It’s all about maintaining the illusion and the gravy train. Because if the gravy train derails, what will happen to them? Especially the youngest children, who are still being taught at the school of the dining room table. One thing people in large families learn is that it’s important to collaborate and cooperate for their own survival. Even though the adults are technically “free”, they stick around… probably because they think they must, but also for the sake of the others, who can’t escape yet. Somewhere behind the smiles and the gushing social media posts, the truth lies.