Tragedy of a North Korean defector

Tragedy of a North Korean defector
North Korean defector, Shin Dong-hyuk

North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk, whose testimony of life in a North Korean gulag before his escape in 2005 propelled the unprecedented effort by the international community to address the brutal human rights abuses in the totalitarian state, has recanted parts of his story, potentially dealing a blow to the movement for which he was a poster boy.

Questions about the veracity of Shin's story told in "Escape from Camp 14," written by former Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden and published in 2012, seem to have been circulating for some time in the North Korean defector community.

Shin came under greater scrutiny after North Korean authorities posted a video on the Internet in which Shin's father claimed that his family had never lived in Camp 14, a notorious political prison camp in which Shin claimed he was born.

Others in the video also challenged Shin's claims, offering a different version of Shin's life than was known through his own harrowing account.

Harden said he learned on Jan. 16 that Shin had been telling a different account of his life to his friends. Pressed for an explanation, Shin admitted to having changed some of the dates and places where events took place.

In a Facebook posting on Jan. 17, Shin said he had wanted to conceal and hide part of his past. He apologised, saying that he "may or may not be able" to continue his work against the North Korean regime.

We cannot know for certain why Shin gave a misleading account to Harden and to the world. In fact, it is possible that Shin may again change his story.

Perhaps the horrendous ordeals that he suffered in North Korea made him want to hide certain parts of his life, as he claims. In an interview in December, Shin said that after defecting he was hospitalised for three months due to PTSD.

The stories of North Korean defectors are difficult to verify because of the very isolated nature of the regime they escaped from. North Korea experts and those who work with North Korean defectors claim that the accounts by the defectors are not always reliable.

The defectors are a "product" of the North Korean system, one where the line between truth and lies is sometimes blurred, accounts are fabricated and ratting on one another is all part and parcel of surviving the brutally repressive regime.

Indeed, Harden is reported as saying that he had stressed in his book that "Shin could be an unreliable narrator of his life."

Shin's fellow rights activists came to his support, arguing that although parts of Shin's story had changed, the fundamentals remained unchanged - he was in a prison camp, suffered inhumane conditions and torture, witnessed rampant human rights abuses, and escaped. On his body he bears the proof of the torture and injuries sustained in his escape.

Shin's credibility has been dealt a blow, but the UN Commission of Inquiry report on human rights conditions in North Korea, which Shin played an important role in bringing about, was based on accounts of 80 witnesses and more than 240 confidential interviews.

North Korea will undoubtedly seize the opportunity to discredit Shin and block attempts to bring its ruler to the International Criminal Court.

However, the international community should not withdraw its condemnation of North Korea's leadership or the efforts to bring the North Korean leader to justice.

Shin's personal tragedy, of having to lie to himself and to the world, should end at that - a personal tragedy. If not Shin, there are numerous other defectors who can bear witness to the North Korean regime's horrendous mistreatment of its own people.

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