TRAVERSE CITY — Sometimes, a book can change world politics and foreign policies.
“Escape from Camp 14” by Blaine Harden, the National Writers Series April 9 visiting author, may help do that if recent international action is any indication.
Harden’s book is about Shin Dong-hyuk, who escaped a notorious North Korean prison camp. It received brief mention last week in news reports and analyses after the United Nations’ top human rights body voted unanimously on March 21 in Geneva to launch a formal probe into North Korea for possible crimes against humanity.
Glyn Davies, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s special representative for North Korea policy, also cited the book and Shin by name in March testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He told the committee the United States supported the creation of a UN commission to investigate North Korea’s abuses against its own people.
“The world is increasingly taking note of the grave, widespread and systematic human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and demanding action,” he said.
Harden’s book, published last year and now translated into 24 languages, chronicles Shin’s 2007 escape from North Korea’s most notorious prison camp, where he was born. It details the first 23 years of Shin’s life in captivity that included torture, forced labor and witnessing at age 14 the execution of his mother and brother.
Shin wrote a book in Korean after his 2007 escape, exposing the horrific conditions and human rights abuses in Camp 14, considered the worst of the country’s six prison camps. However, it received little attention in South Korea.
Harden wrote a page 1 Washington Post story about it the following year and tracked Shin to Seoul, South Korea, to persuade him to be interviewed and work with him on the book.
“He was just bereft, heartbroken and broke when I met him,” Harden said. “Shin didn’t want to go through this without getting good results. What has happened in the last year is that we hoped for and better than I promised and it meant a lot to him.
“In the past year, he really has taken to his role as human rights activist seriously, raising awareness and calling for the close of the camps. He’s on the road most of the time traveling all over the world.”
“Escape from Camp 14” has become an international bestseller. It is just now being published in paperback and as an e-book in Korean and Chinese, and Harden predicts that could have a strong impact on the foreign policy in those two countries and elsewhere.
Harden thinks the United Nations action to create a “commission of inquiry” to investigate human rights abuses indicates an important shift in international “do nothing” foreign policy toward North Korea, which he hopes could eventually lead to indictments and closure of the camps. The secretive Asian nation denies allegations of human rights abuses and the existence of the camps believed to house 100,000 to 200,000 prisoners, even though the camps can be seen on satellite images and Google maps.
A longtime foreign correspondent for The New York Times and Washington Post, Harden is a contributor to PBS Frontline and The Economist. He is also the author of “A River Lost” and “Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent.”
He won the Ernie Pyle Award for his coverage of the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. “Escape from Camp 14” received the 2012 Grand Prix de la Biographie Politique, a French literary prize.
The National Writers Series’ Evening with Blaine Harden begins at 7 p.m. at the City Opera House. Guest host is Lucas Wittman, literary editor and senior articles editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He oversees the National Magazine Award-winning Book Beast, a leading online book section. Prior to the Beast, he worked in publishing at W.W. Norton & Company.
Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door, which opens at 6 p.m. Purchase online or call the City Opera House box office at 941-8082.