Book club: Escape From Camp 14

Finbarr Bermingham reads a disturbing depiction of the North Korean prison camp system

Shin Dong-hyuk didn't know it was the dawn of a new year when on 2 January 2005 he used the frazzled corpse of his friend and mentor to help him clamber over a highly charged electric fence and escape from Kaechon internment camp. "Camp 14", as it's more systematically known, is said to be the most brutal of North Korea's massive prison camps, although the state denies its existence. The camp has existed since 1959 - a lifespan 48 years longer than that of Auschwitz, to which it's sometimes compared for its brutality. It's a place where teenage boys are interrogated on spits over open fires, where babies conceived through rape are beaten to death with rods, where chemical weapons are said to be "tested" on the residents and where children are encouraged to beat one another to a pulp in order to curry favour with their teachers. Shin is the only prisoner ever known to have escaped.

About 5,000 miles away in Edinburgh, I'd just experienced my first Hogmanay celebration and was nursing the inaugural two-day hangover that came with it. I mention this triviality only because I'm roughly the same age as Shin and happen to recall what I was doing around the time he made his break from Camp 14, a fact which makes his story resonate with me all the louder. You see, Shin's story isn't something from the archives. The goriest experiences of his life are also being inflicted on others as you read. Half of the Korean peninsula is in the grips of a barbaric regime: the North is the world's biggest prison and yet has been reduced to a caricature in the minds of many. Try typing "Kim Jong-il" into Google and the first two suggested search results are "Kim Jong-il looking at things" and "Kim Jong-il dropping the bass".

The fact is, nobody ever talks about these camps, which is why Escape From Camp 14 is one of the most important books on international affairs you can read this year. It's riveting, it's horrifying and it's vital. Shin's very existence is the result of two prisoners being allowed to fornicate as a reward for working hard. He was worked to the bone, routinely beaten and starved since early childhood. A culture of paranoia pervaded in the camp: inmates may have received some extra food, or fewer beatings, for snitching on someone for stealing or slacking. Thus, upon hearing his brother and mother (in whose company he was permitted to spend a few nights a year) plotting an escape - the ultimate crime - Shin told a prison guard. Far from being rewarded, though, he spent the ensuing months being routinely tortured in solitary confinement, before being forced to watch his mother and brother's executions.

It wasn't until years later - a matter of months before his escape - that he heard of North Korea's capital Pyongyang, of South Korea, and of China for the first time. His eyes had been opened by another prisoner who, unlike Shin, had experienced life beyond Camp 14's boundaries: the very same prisoner whose body Shin used to help hoist himself over the electric fence. Upon escaping, making his way over the Chinese border and fortuitously encountering a South Korean journalist in Shanghai who facilitated his repatriation to Seoul, Shin found that few wished to hear his story. His own memoir sold a mere 500 copies. Harden's book has made it onto the New York Times' and Wall Street Journal's bestsellers lists and has helped to give Shin, now a human rights campaigner, the voice which millions before him have gone to their graves without.

The book, quite rightly, spares the reader none of the detail. There are passages that make the reader wince - Harden's prose is plain and effective. Appropriately, there are no frills - just a vanilla retelling of Shin's life, as bare and torturous as it should be. However, woven through the narrative is a potted history of North Korea and how it has floundered since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For those with little preexistent knowledge on the subject, this introduction may prove as disturbing as Shin's story itself.

Far from being one of the world's only surviving Communist states (a commonly held view), North Korea is a dictatorial kleptocracy and is now home to arguably the longest standing humanitarian crisis of our generation. Its relationship with China - which only tolerates the Kim dynasty because it provides a buffer between itself and the westernised South Korea - means that while western hawks are happy to broker war on Iran, Iraq, Libya and anyone else who fails to conform to their ideologies, intervention in North Korea isn't an option: change must come from within and as such, progress is glacial.

Six years on from Shin's escape, I found myself standing on the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. On the south side, in which I was then living, every inch of arable land was put to work. Fields of rice, corn and barley rolled out to meet the horizon. It was a lush cornucopia compared to the absolute desolation that confronted us on the other side, in which every living thing had been razed to ground level, so as to limit the chances of defectors making it across the DMZ.

It was, no doubt, thrilling (in a twisted, voyeuristic kind of way) being so close to the most secretive place on earth, but while our guide was more than happy to fill us in on the grimiest details of the Korean War, not once did he mention the imprisonment of thousands - if not millions - of North Koreans in camps like the one Shin was born into. Over the course of a year living in South Korea, the only person who offered me an opinion on the atrocities on the wrong side of the 38th Parallel was a Canadian teacher. Escape From Camp 14 is a brilliant read, but also a literary klaxon, alerting a mainstream audience to the plight of millions. For these reasons, it should be viewed as a monumental success.