Foreign Policy Blogs

Camp 14: Total Control Zone (2012)


What could be worse than living in a North Korean labor camp? Apparently, not much.

This documentary centers mainly on Shin Dong-Huyk, an inmate who escaped Camp 14 and who now lives in South Korea.

The tale he tells is horrific: beatings, torture, hard labor and near starvation are all the norm. He began hard labor at the age of six.

Shin, who was born in the labor camp and who knows no other kind of life, is a complex person.

He tells of how he turned in his mother and brother and how he watched them executed for their plan to escape. Shin said he felt nothing for them while he saw them killed (attendance is mandatory at executions).

An interesting note is why Shin escaped. He said it wasn’t freedom he was after but food.

He had heard a new older inmate talk about chicken and barbecue and was fascinated. Inmates receive a meager amount of corn every day in the camp.
Shin says he witnessed a girl beaten for several hours in a classroom because she had some grains of wheat in her pocket. She later died from an infection of a wound to the head.

What is perhaps the most surprising is how Shin wants to return to the camp. He believes he was innocent there despite his causing the death of his mother and brother.

It is difficult to comprehend but even Hell is preferable if you are lost outside of it.

But he has no illusions about life there. Shin talks about how angry he is because of the treatment he received.
As far as the filming goes, the camera stays on Shin for long moments of silence. It is in this way that the viewer sees his struggle to explain himself.
Two former guards are also interviewed and what they say is also disturbing. They had complete control over the inmates they guarded. For example, when a woman inmate became pregnant after being raped by a guard, the guard could just find some excuse and kill her.

This is a study of how people behave if given complete control will abuse their power. Life is cheap in the camp, and people are summarily executed for even the smallest infraction. Also, the inmates in Camp 14 are there for life, so there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

There are also animated sequences, which really help tell the tale.

So, what is the viewer to take away from watching this film?

One might think Shin’s tale is a testament to the human spirit because he escaped. But, as was mentioned previously, he didn’t escape for freedom but for food.

That may seem a strange reason, but to the inmates of Camp 14 food is a constant topic, in part because of the near-starvation rations they receive.
This film is about power and its abuse. It is a cautionary tale about what people will do to each other given the control they have over others.

Camp 14: Total Control Zone is available to rent.
Murphy can be reached at: [email protected]



Sean Patrick Murphy

Sean Patrick Murphy is a graduate of Bennington College, where he majored in politics and Latin American literature. He has worked for Current History magazine, Physicians for Human Rights, and Citizens for Global Solutions (formerly the World Federalist Association). He lives outside Philadelphia.

Areas of Focus:
Cinematography; Independent Films; Documentary;