January 19, 2015

North Korean prison camp survivor partially recants his story


91RB8MMjr8LWhen biographies become bestsellers, they attract a large amount of scrutiny. Not to mention the scrutiny that’s provided by the publisher before release; any book put out by a major publisher that describes other people’s lives in any way that could be even remotely contested gets vetted repeatedly for any possible trace of libel or fabrication.

But that in-house prep can only go so far. Current box-office hit American Sniper’s source text failed that test, to the tune of almost $2 million in damages. Even when embellishments, stretched truths, and downright lies support a socially admirable cause, they still end up blacking the eye of the creator. Mike Daisey, for instance. And now, one of the most prominent advocates for human rights in North Korea is facing a similar controversy.

Shin Dong-Hyuk was, until recently,  known for his miraculous escape from a North Korean forced labor camp, in which he also claimed to have been born 32 years ago. His story of imprisonment and escape, and the many atrocities he witnessed, was told in the New York Times bestselling book Escape from Camp 14, written by former Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden, to whom Shin related his life story in a series of interviews. Shin also told his story to the United Nations.

However, the Post reports that Harden is now revising his book, due to Shin’s recent reveal that he omitted certain details.

In Escape from Camp 14 and in his testimony to the U.N. commission, Shin has told this story: He was born in Camp 14, a sprawling high-security political prison in the mountains of north of Pyongyang, where he was brutally tortured and lived until his escape in 2005. He has consistently said that he escaped with a fellow inmate, climbing over his body when the man was electrocuted on the fence that surrounded the camp, and then made his way into China.

Shin admitted to Harden on Friday that when he was about 6, he, his mother and his brother were transferred to another prison camp, Camp 18, across the Taedong River from Camp 14.

Shin also admitted to compressing the timeline of events, which included an initial, unsuccessful escape at age 20. After being recaptured, Shin was brutally tortured, though in the initial book Shin claimed that this torture took place when he was 13.

Of course, the central truth of Shin’s story – that he was horribly abused and tortured in a concentration camp run by a despotic regime – has not been disputed. However, the question then becomes if this development could undermine the greater campaign to address North Korea’s human rights violations. The New York Times reports:

Mr. Shin’s confession has raised fears among other prison camp survivors and South Korean human rights activists that it could stall an already difficult campaign by the United States and other nations to get the Security Council to push for an investigation at the International Criminal Court. Other camp survivors also testified before the United Nations investigators, recounting being tortured and starved, but activists worry that Mr. Shin’s recanting will help China and other North Korea supporters fight against opening a court case.

North Korea has unsurprisingly called Shin a liar since he first started speaking out, including getting Shin’s father to speak out against him, an act Shin claims was coerced.

As the only surviving escapee of a “total-control zone” in a regime notoriously eager to suppress any and all negative depictions of them, Shin’s testimony in front of the UN has been invaluable in the global fight for human rights in North Korea. If parts of his story are inconsistent, it means a new disclaimer in the book and some new paragraphs but it certainly doesn’t make Kim Jong-Un’s regime look good. It means that the psychic effects of torture can often damage memories or make them prohibitively painful to relive in full, and that the necessary exposure of torture’s widespread practice still requires quick and decisive action.

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.