Putting Shin Dong-hyuk’s Lies into Context

January 24, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

Whilst in graduate school I was searching for a dissertation topic to which I would commit my foreseeable future and longer-term academic career. North Korea was the area that immediately appealed to me. I had previously lived in South Korea, and had for some time been steadily, though quite unconsciously, devouring the prominent works on all things North Korean as a course of private study. After discovering that the head of my Korean Studies department was an impressive academic, but more importantly, willing to supervise my research, my mind was set – my enthusiasm, however, would not last beyond our first face-to-face meeting. As eager as my professor was for me to join his department, he was also just as eager for me to avoid narrowing my study in order to focus exclusively on North Korea. He believe this to be a dead zone for serious academia. That is, due to the closeted nature of the country, what little verifiable information that was available had already been printed and reprinted well beyond its value.

The environment he described was not pure vacuity. As I was aware from my reading habits, there was a semi-regular stream of newly emerging information that was protecting the academic community from complete starvation. The trouble was that it was largely un-academic in nature. Presenting in the form of anecdotal evidence from the defector community, this new source material was not without merit, nor immediately dubious; but it was, nonetheless, entirely unverifiable. And to make matters considerably worse, these first-hand stories often emerged within a haze of media fanfare, and in the form of bestselling books.

It may be uncomfortable to be cynical and to expect the worst of other human beings, but it is also a delusion to imagine that a standard model has not been developed for the stories of North Korean defectors. From being born into the worst imaginable circumstances, North Korean defectors will, if canny enough, learn that they can achieve a minor celebrity status, relative wealth, and often lucrative career options, if only they can author an account of their life which differs significantly from those who have come before. The more revealing, the more tragic, the more outlandish the story, the greater such windfalls are likely to be.

This is not to smear the integrity of those lucky and courageous enough to escape the world’s last prison state, it is simply to acknowledge that a unique incentive has been created. And perhaps more importantly, that the disincentive towards dishonest story telling has been reduced to almost zero – that is, being exposed in a lie or embellishment. It is almost impossible to get the first-person account of any ex-North Korean sufficiently corroborated, it is harder still to find enough evidence to prove it wrong. For the most part, North Korean narratives are inoculated from all critical review into their content – unless, just as has happened with Shin Dong-hyuk, you inadvertently do it to yourself.

Shin Dong-hyuk’s personal story was extraordinary to say the least. Within a country bursting at the seams with prison camps, a select few have still managed to develop a common notoriety. Camp 14 was one of them. Officially labelled as a ‘Total Control Zone’, it was set up in order to house political prisoners. North Korea still considers any relative within three generations of a political prisoner to be complicit in the same crime, so when Shin was born inside Camp 14, he was also born into guilt by virtue of his parent’s crimes – there was no question of his being allowed to leave. As Shin grew up, he was to be subject to bouts of torture, and was forced to witness the executions of his mother and elder brother. The political re-education program designed for the inmates of Camp 14 was rudimentary: hard labour until death. No prisoner had ever seen the inside of such a camp and lived to tell their story. So after Shin both escaped the camp and then the country, he had something new to say about North Korea, he had a story worth publishing.

Shin’s life became the bestselling ‘Escape from Camp 14’, written by Blaine Harden, and for two years Shin lived something of a charmed life. Books sales were impressive, speaking tours were readily available, and he was even called as a witness before a United Nations investigation into North Korean human rights abuses. And, until last month, there was no means to doubt his story.

Perhaps it was carelessness, perhaps he was forgetful, or perhaps it was guilt and he was seeking a form of absolution, longing to be found out – regardless, Shin’s story changed. Harden describes the course of events that compelled him to recently contact Shin, “on Friday January 16, I learned that Shin … had told friends an account of his life that differed substantially from my book”. Shin has subsequently confessed to lying about certain key details concerning his life in North Korea.

At this point we ought to not simply assume that Shin was swayed by the perverse incentives previously described. There are other compelling reasons for why inconsistencies and inaccuracies would creep into the personal narratives of otherwise honest defectors. To some extent, duplicity is to be expected from anyone who has undergone the undoubted trauma of life inside North Korea. For any given survivor, there is likely to be the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, a degree of physiological repression, a fear of endangering family members who still are trapped inside North Korea; and all of this within the context of the individual suddenly being forced to adapt to a new life in unfamiliar surroundings. Hardin has himself acknowledged that, for this reason, he overlooked certain inconsistencies as Shin was originally dictating his story for publication.

It is worth noting that the alterations to Shin’s original story do little to damage the overall substance of his claims. It is still just as horrific, and just as astonishing, as his original. But therein lies the problem, you would be hard pressed to find any account of life in North Korea that does not satisfy such categories. North Korean stories are, by their very nature, extraordinary! In circumstances where the extraordinary is common place, and where people are willing to pay for a narrative that stands above the rest, the temptation towards embellishment is hard to turn down.

New material on North Korea rarely lives up to the basic standards for newspaper publishing. However, because there is so little information that meets such a standard, and because North Korea itself holds such a high level of public intrigue, the tendency is to accept a lower standard of truth. And, perhaps there is no way around this situation. North Korea are not about to start issuing visas to foreign researchers, with the promise of unrestricted access to both sensitive information and local communities.

So there is a chance that my old professor had a point. We ought to not immediately doubt the honesty of North Korean defectors, but we ought to only accept their anecdotes in proper context. Shin’s now-edited story is still an exceptional one, and certainly one worth reading, but it is still now, just as it always was, largely unverifiable – the sort of information that would not make it past the front door of any reputable academic institution.