When Transcendence Goes Missing
One more glimpse into North Korea
Jason asked about how Shin Dong-Hyuk in Escape from Camp 14 kept his sanity: was there any talk of faith in the book? There was, though it was at the far end of the story, after Shin made his way to California. There he was helped by a family who welcomed him into meals and daily life and helped him understand the give and take of trusting family relationships. So indoctrinated was Shin in the North Korean prison camp system of snitching on others and assuming no one (including parents and family) would look out for him, that he had a very hard time with ordinary relationships.
Early on in the story, Shin’s attention is focused on survival. The entire nation is focused on just getting to the slimmest subsistence level of caloric intake, which was especially true of the political prison system. In one story, a child who found five or six kernels of corn in a fold of clothing and quickly ate them was soundly beaten by the prison guard/teacher. That’s the level of desperation. In this setting, there was little room for anything behind always scanning for rats or bugs to eat. And since Shin was born in the political prison, the only faith presented was a faith in finding hidden problems with others that could be reported to guards in exchange for slightly better treatment. Shin knew nothing of God and was entirely focused on staying alive.
It’s an ugly story.
Shin did come to a faith in God after living with this family in California. Blaine Harden, the journalist who did such an excellent job assembling and telling Shin’s story, struggled with how Shin retold stories of escape after he came to faith: he started to see how God was involved back then. Harden is right in pointing out Shin knew nothing of God at the time (of his imprisonment). It seemed to Harden Shin was adding in new elements in the retelling. But for me, as a person of faith, I can understand how Shin looked back and saw connections he did not notice earlier.
But Harden’s story is not a story of faith in God. It is a brutal story of survival.
Did I mention this book is worth reading? There is a long waiting list at our local library.