"Escape from Camp 14" by Blaine Harden. It was disturbing, indeed frightening. It is not the sort of book I enjoy reading. Indeed, had I not been asked to read it, I probably would not have picked it up. If I had picked it up I might have done nothing more than skim it.
Blaine Harden is a journalist. The book reads like a serious column in a serious newspaper. It is about a very serious - and profoundly depressing - subject. Harden is telling the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, a man who escaped from a North Korean prison camp.
Before reading the book I was vaguely aware that such places existed. I guessed that the lives of those in them would be at least as bad as the worst of the WWII Nazi or Japanese concentration camps. They are, if Shin is to be believed, even worse than that.
I suspect that most people are not even aware that the camps exist. Nobody talks about them. Why should they? If we do not think about them we can pretend they do not exist. We can, perhaps, pretend that North Korea does not really exist.
North Korea has to be the most isolated nation in the world. The people who live there - or it might be more accurate to say "exist" there - appear to be barely aware that there is another world outside North Korea. Even when they are what they believe about that world is apparently inaccurate.
For Shin Dong-hyuk however the world was even more restricted. He claims not to have known even about the capital or where it was. His education was restricted to a bare minimum - most of it appears to have been about listening to and learning how he had to work hard in order to atone the sins of an uncle who was supposed to have escaped to the South.
Harden describes the slave labour conditions and Shin's extreme difficulty in adjusting to a life outside the prison camp. It is clear though that even he has difficulty in understanding Shin's feelings of guilt and self-loathing at what he did in order to escape and how he came to do it.
But there is also a discussion of the attitude of the people in the South and the people in China towards the North. They are not, on the whole, sympathetic. They see the potential collapse of the North as an economic burden on them - rather in the way that German reunification was an economic burden for the West.
And Shin worries that, should there be a collapse, then hundreds of thousands of North Koreans existing in the slave like prison camps will simply be slaughtered before anyone can do anything about them. He has no idea how that can be prevented.
I do not know either. Even allowing for the fact that it was written by a journalist who has a story to sell, it was an appalling book to read.