Blaine Harden, journalist and author of “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West” is the 2014-2015 Book in Common author at Collin College. His book details the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, as he is born in a North Korean prison camp to prisoners and eventually escapes, the first-ever North Korean prisoner to do so.
Q. How did you meet Shin Dong-hyuk?
A. We met for lunch and an interview in Seoul while I was working for “The Washington Post” in 2008. At that time, he was at his lowest point since coming to South Korea. He was running out of the stipend that was paid for defectors. He was living in a tiny apartment that he could no longer afford and was worried that he was going to be homeless. Emotionally he was very odd, distant and cold. He ate a lot of lunch and told me his story but wouldn’t look me in the eye.
Q. When did you decide to work on a book with him?
A. After the initial story I did on him for “The Washington Post,” people from all over sent me e-mails asking how they could help him. I realized that this was the story I was looking for to give a fresh, detailed face to human totalitarianism.
Q. What do you think makes his story so captivating?
A. It’s in some ways similar to young dystopian novels. It really resonates with young people. They can see their lives through his life through the family tensions. They want to understand the extraordinary situation that he was in. And his story raises questions such as: What could he be if he was raised differently? Can he be a normal ethical human being? How does one learn value when you really don’t understand morality? There’s really no one else like him so his development is interesting.
Q. What does the future look like for North Korea?
A. Distraction has been North Korea’s technique for many years to keep attention off their abuses. Long-range missiles and submarines keep the focus off of how the government treats its own people. I see that strategy continuing. They hate the focus on human rights. It’s enormously infuriating to them.
Q. What do you want people to take away from the book?
A. I want people to understand the extraordinary power of bad government. People need to pay attention to how their government works and ask ‘Is it open?’ ‘Is it fair, free, is it equitable?’ and then demand all those things. I think Shin’s story is the example of the worst government in the world and the worst things it can do.
Harden spoke about the book at Collin College’s Central Park, Preston Ridge and Spring Creek campuses over three days as part of the Book In Common program.