Joining my 9-year-old daughter and a sizable slice of the American population, I queued up last week to watch”The Hunger Games.”My daughter had just read the book and was giddy with excitement. Reviewers had reassured me that scenes in the film showing children fighting each other to the death on orders of a totalitarian state had been carefully edited.
Still, the movie turned my stomach — and not because of what I saw on the screen. What flashed through my mind were images of North Korea. There, in a real totalitarian state, children are bred like livestock in labor camps. They are taught to betray their parents. They are worked to death.
The Kim family dynasty — founder Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il, who died in December, and Kim Jong Un, the third-generation successor — has presided over this human rights catastrophe for more than half a century without provoking much interest, understanding or outrage from the American public.
Make-believe dystopias, it seems, are easier on our eyes and kinder to our conscience. In “The Hunger Games,” the evil regime is no match for Katniss Everdeen, played by the well-nourished Jennifer Lawrence. But in North Korea’s labor camps, the captives are always hungry and the games are always rigged.
There are about 200,000 inmates in six camps, the largest of which is 31 miles long and 25 miles wide, an area larger than the city of Los Angeles. According to the testimony of camp survivors, prisoners live and die without soap, socks, underwear, toilet paper or sanitary napkins. They are forced to do hard labor while subsisting on a starvation diet of corn, cabbage, salt — and the occasional rat. As they age, they lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and they hunch over at the waist. They usually die of hunger-related illness before turning 50.
North Korea says the camps do not exist. Its diplomats refuse to discuss them. But they are clearly visible on Google Earth. Had the movie audience been interested, they could have used their smartphones and found high-resolution satellite pictures of the camps.
I learned about daily life in these camps from Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have been born in one of them and escape to the West. Shin was born in Camp 14 in 1982 after guards selected his mother and father for a “reward marriage” and instructed them to have sex. Shin was 14 when he was forced to watch camp guards hang his mother and shoot his brother.
Years later, in interviews for a book about his life, Shin told me he was responsible for these executions. He had memorized camp rule No. 1: “Any witness to an attempted escape who fails to report it will be shot immediately.” After overhearing his mother and brother discussing escape, he betrayed his family in order to save his life, please his jailers and earn extra food. His snitching, though, did him no good. He was tortured for suspected involvement in the escape and received no extra food.
Amazingly, Shin escaped in 2005. He squirmed through a high-voltage fence, crawling over the electrocuted body of a man named Park, a fellow prisoner who had inspired him to want to see the outside world and who was to have been his guide in finding China.
Shin was lucky. By breaking into houses, stealing food and trading in street markets, he collected enough cash to bribe border guards who allowed him to cross into China. From there, he traveled to South Korea and, eventually, to the United States, where he lived for two years in the suburbs of Los Angeles. In 2011, he moved back to Seoul.
Beyond the barbed wire, there has been no Hollywood ending for Shin. He has nightmares about his mother. He wrestles with self-loathing. He says he is learning how to be human and it is going very slowly.
Shin dreads questions about his horrific childhood. In asking them, I often felt like a dentist drilling without anesthetic. He put up with it for nearly three years because he believes in the goodwill of the American people and the power of their government. He wants Americans to know the awful particulars of what North Korea has done — is still doing — to men, women and children in the camps. He wants Americans to pressure their leaders to lean on China, North Korea’s patron, and force the young dictator, Kim Jong Un, to close the camps.
As for “The Hunger Games,” my daughter liked the movie and can’t wait for the sequels, which means that I will be buying more tickets and that I am in no position to judge others for spending money on escapist fantasy. But it breaks my heart that even as we root for the survival of the fictional Katniss, we do not know enough — or care enough — to raise our collective voice and demand that North Korea stop breeding, starving and enslaving labor-camp children.
Blaine Harden, a former reporter for the Washington Post, is the author of Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.