The cruelty of dictators is best understood by talking to their victims. That’s why in my two books about North Korea’s dictatorial Kim family I have focused on escaped survivors. My books examine the Kim dynasty from radically different angles.
In ?Escape from Camp 14, the view is from the bottom up. I focused on the lowest of the low in that society. Shin Dong-hyuk was born into a system of political labour camps that North Korea says does not exist. His story is dark beyond all imagining. He was repeatedly tortured. He betrayed his own mother and brother, resulting in their death by public execution. When he watched his mother and brother die, he said he felt nothing. He was raised in North Korea’s gulag to be “an animal.” He cared only about himself and his own survival.
In my newest book, ?The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, the survivor was a technocrat. No Kum Sok became the country’s youngest jet fighter pilot. During the Korean War, he flew more than 100 missions against American fighter jets. Besides being an accomplished pilot, No was a sensational self-trained actor. From his mid-teens onward he pretended to love Great Leader Kim Il Sung. He shouted Kim’s praises when pilots gathered for ideological meetings. He denounced colleagues and superiors who failed to shower Kim with noisy praise.
All the time, he hated the nation that Kim was building and searched for an open window through which he could fly his Soviet-made MiG-15 fighter jet to freedom. The window opened on September 21, 1953, when No flew south to an American air force base near Seoul. He was insanely lucky. The Americans could not see him coming. They had turned off their radar that morning for routine maintenance.
As survivors and as subjects for books, No Kum Sok and Shin Dong-hyuk could not be more different.
No Kum Sok is one of the most thoroughly documented defectors in the history of North Korea. His escape in a fighter that the Americans were desperate to get their hands on was one of the biggest stories of the Cold War. American intelligence officials debriefed him for hundreds of hours and compiled a massive dossier on his life, which was recently declassified.
Shin Dong Hyuk’s life is much more difficult to document. Like the stories that many torture victims tell, Shin’s account can be inconsistent. In the original edition of Escape from Camp 14, I presented him as a troubled and unreliable narrator and detailed how he lied repeatedly to me. Earlier this year he changed key details in his story, altering places and dates of important events. But there is also new evidence supporting the fundamental horror of his torture and torment in the political labour camps. An eyewitness has emerged to the execution of his mother and brother.
Taken together, these books paint a compelling and nuanced portrait of the world’s longest-lasting totalitarian government – the cruelest government on earth.
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Blaine Harden is a reporter for PBS Frontline, contributor to The Economist and former Washington Post bureau chief in Tokyo. He is the prize-winning and acclaimed author of five books, including Escape from Camp 14. This international bestseller was turned into a documentary film and has been selected for World Book Night 2015. His latest book, The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, is out now.