Escape from Camp America


Escape from Camp America: Escape from Camp 14 as a “Mirror Up to Nature.”

for anything overdone is

from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the

first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the

mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,

scorn her own image, and the very age and body of

the time his form and pressure. Hamlet Act 3 Scene 2

We stood at the Catholic University of America Metro stop as the snow fell down. I was waiting to catch the train to my warm apartment in Arlington and working as an assistant librarian during the evenings while completing my English MA during the winter of 2005. The woman with whom I waiting was an émigré from Russia who had come to America via Canada (I think that happens a lot). She was a devout member of the Orthodox Church and had become an American patriot and proudly defended a vision of America as a land of freedom and prosperity that I took for granted as a reactionary Catholic grad student. While we were waiting for the rushing, clinking sound of the train wheels, I began to criticize some of the draconian policies that had arisen after September 11—specifically the Patriot Act, and maybe I was still reeling from the fact that I was harassed by a TSA agent when returning from Christmas break (I think it was because I was blonde, kind of fat, wearing a tie, and carrying a biography of T.S. Eliot). The old Russian woman grew angry and scolded me for my foolishness. Certainly, I had no idea what it was like to live in a totalitarian system. She had live under a communist dictatorship. The fact that the American intelligence community may be spying on cell phone conversations (they were) was not a big deal.  The Patriot Act was a temporary and necessary precaution that would protect us from terrorists. American was the land of the free. The problem with my fellow librarian was not that she wasn’t right—she was—it was that I also was right—kind of.

I couldn’t help but think of my librarian friend when I recently finished reading Escape from Camp 14. The book tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, an escapee from North Korean prison Camp 14. What makes Shin’s story especially interesting is that he was born in a concentration camp. Thus, everything Shin knew about the world was restricted to his barb-wired prison. It wasn’t until he met an elderly man, called “Uncle,” and another man, named “Park,” from the outside world that he found out what he was missing. The weirdest and most disturbing thing about Escape from Camp 14 is not that it provides a view of how awful North Korea is, and it is, but that it serves as Hamlet’s “mirror up to nature” that shows us how bad America is becoming.

North Korea has been in the news–a lot. There are daily reports of the buffoonish antics of the latest generation of the Kim family on satirical sites such as There is the Dennis Rodman affair. There is a fake Kim Jong-un Twitter account that nearly daily gives hilarious sound bites that make fun of the poverty, technological ineptitude, and cruelty of the North Korean regime. The irony is, however, that the more the West resembles Kim Jong-un, the more we ridicule him. The things that the Twitter account user says that Kim Jong-un says sound like what he would actually say, and what he actually says is very American. The Michael Jordan aficionado turns out to be able to speak American very well. He was educated in Switzerland, but he was best noted for his love of basketball and video games. This is probably why we make fun of Kim Jong-un so much: he is so like us. Like the Kardashians, Kanye West, Cesar Millan, Kim Jong-un is the face of decadent, not too smart and very goofy Hollywood-crafted contemporary America. Jong-un could flow seamlessly onto People magazine or an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians or The Bachelor.

The current dictator merely looms in the background of Escape from Camp 14. The story is mostly about Shin and his escape to the West. But what he escapes to is only a fatter, more technologically savvy version of North Korea. In post-modernity, there is no escape from Camp 14. Finally making his way through northeastern China, Shin travels into the South Korean consulate. and then was brought to freedom in the “West.”  For the author, Blaine Harden, the West is defined by affluence, pop culture, and freedom. South Korea is rich and has exciting soap operas and DVDs. America is richer and has even more exciting TV programs and even more and cheaper DVDS. Shin is raised in world in which every thought is organized and controlled by a sadistic and buffoonish organization and the highest goods in life are grilled meat and sex, and he escapes into a world that is virtually identical.

The current narrative that Shin was born in a prison camp serves as a perfect model of America. From an earlier age, Americans are taught a number of things about the way in which the world is and works that limit what and what is not acceptable to think. When reminiscing on this process, a friend of mine and I both recalled that we remember three things from elementary and junior high school of the 1980s and 90s: the whales are being exterminated from the ocean, the industrial revolution was bad, and the cultural revolution of the 1960s was the greatest event to happen in the history of the world. For the rest of our lives, a prison is constructed from these flimsy foundations. The prison is not held together with barb wire—for the most part. It is tied by William Blake’s “mind forged manacles.” I often reflect on this prison as I walk through its cognitive labyrinth: How is it that I know everything about the Kardashian family without ever having seen an episode of their show? How do I know the all of the songs in the movie Frozen without ever having seen it? I have never watched the Super Bowl in its entirety—ever–but every year I know who played in it and what the scores are.

This prison is not all fluffy pop culture though. Like North Korea, the silliness masks a certain brutality. The absolutely cartoonish buffoonery of the Kim family, which hides a savage cruelty, is a clear parallel to our own long Halloween of bozos-in-chief. From George W. Bush laughing it up at the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner about the missing weapons of mass destruction to Obama partying up with the black nationalist occultist Jay-Z while Americans are killed by “Libyan Rebels,” we out Kim Jong-il Kim Jong-un. Is there really any difference between Barrack Obama and Kim Jong-un? Is there any difference between Kim Jong- un and Seth Rogan, the goofy, overweight nerd who attempts to lampoon his spitting moral image in The Interview?

Just like in North Korea, American media provides us with a steady stream of howling lies. We are aiding Syrian rebels to fight the cruel Assad. We are fighting the Syrian rebels with Assad. We are fighting some of the Syrian rebels, and Assad is still bad. At least with Kim Jong-un, we can get a somewhat coherent narrative of lies: America is the worst country in the world. South Korea started the Korean War. Everyone in North Korea is free, well-nourished, and happy.

One of the other key points in Escape from Camp 14 that (rightly) is supposed to shock and awe us is how dysfunctional Shin’s family was. His father and mother were given to one another as rewards and allowed to breed a family that they would never raise. How different was Shin’s family from the average American or South Korean family? Everyone in the family resented one another. The children went to school while their parents work until late in the evening. Sometimes they ate together. Yes, Shin’s mother and brother were killed in front of him and his father for trying to escape (Shin is the one who ratted on them), but give the emergent post-American police state some time, and we’ll get there.

The torrent of criticism about comparing The Land of the Free to a North Korean slave labor camp is entirely and completely justified. Certainly, most Americans are not assaulted by police officers and military personal—only some are. Surely, living at near starvation level poverty is not the same as not being able to afford groceries without the use of a credit card. Of course, in America we drop or kids off all day to be monitored by strangers employed by state, but that is not the same thing as what happened in Camps 14. But more of this later. Kim Jong-un thinks I am working right now.

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