Shin’s story is vastly different from that of other survivors; as Blaine chillingly reveals, it doesn’t fit “a conventional narrative arc [of survival]” which includes a loving family, a comfortable home, a sense of community governed by moral principles, from which the protagonist is brutally torn. In utter contrast, Shin began his life barely human: his prisoner parents were arbitrarily paired by guards to breed, whatever offspring they produced would become slaves who would work and die in Camp 14, considered “[b]y reputation ... the toughest” of the country’s six known camps.
Shin experienced no familial bonds. His mother was nothing more than competition for food. He barely saw his older brother and father. He described himself “as a predator who had been bred in the camp to inform on family and friends – and feel no remorse.” Preying equaled survival. Only much later would Shin learn the criminal history of his family: “The unforgivable crime Shin’s father had committed was being the brother of two young men who had fled south during [the Korean War]... Shin’s unforgivable crime was being his father’s son.”
At 4, he witnessed his first execution. At 6, he watched a classmate beaten to death for having five grains of corn in her pocket. At 14, he survived heinous torture, then witnessed his mother being hung and his brother shot. At 22, he lost a finger as punishment for dropping a sewing machine.
At 23, on January 2, 2005, Shin climbed over the electrified corpse of his fellow escapee, and began a labyrinthine journey toward freedom. His own slight body bears innumerable scars of mutilation. When he escaped, he knew virtually nothing of the outside world, yet he miraculously traversed North Korea, China, South Korea, and finally made his way to the United States.
To call Shin’s adjustment to his new life "difficult" is grave understatement: “’I escaped physically … I haven’t escaped psychologically.’” Defectors understandably suffer from a myriad of clinical symptoms including post-traumatic syndrome, paranoia, paralyzing survival guilt. Shin struggles at an even more basic level: “’I am evolving from being an animal ... [b]ut it is going very, very slowly.’”