Celebrated Korean gulag defector changes story. Does that change the truth?

The head of a UN inquiry today said the presence of prison camps in the North has been well documented, with accounts from numerous escapees and satellite imagery. 

Jacky Naegelen/Reuters/File
Blaine Harden (l.), former Washington Post journalist, and Shin Dong-hyuk pose before a news conference to present their book 'Escape from Camp 14' in Paris on May 2, 2012.

Revelations that one of the most prominent North Korean defectors lied about details of growing up in a prison camp will do little to discredit what is known about brutal conditions in that country’s gulags, according to experts and international jurists.

Shin Dong-hyuk, whose story was chronicled in the 2012 best-seller “Escape from Camp 14,” confessed to his biographer Jan. 16 that he had misrepresented significant elements of his experiences at a notorious labor camp.

But while Shin has appeared in meetings and human rights forums all over Europe and the US, he is just one of many dozens of defectors to have detailed abuses at the camps, including torture, rape, and summary executions. The UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea gathered extensive escapee testimony on the camps for its report released last March.

Another comprehensive report by The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington-based advocacy group, released in 2013 and titled "The Hidden Gulag" included testimony of dozens of escapees and witnesses. 

Retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, who chaired the UN commission, has said his report contains just two paragraphs of Shin’s testimony among its 400 pages and today said the “partial retraction” of Mr. Shin’s testimony “is not … significant … for the conclusions.”

“The UN Commission of Inquiry has presented compelling evidence from dozens of survivors about multiple camps, completely independent of Shin,” says Joshua Stanton, author of the blog One Free Korea. “The evidence of the camps’ existence and their horrific conditions is overwhelming, but of course, North Korea’s government has made absolute confirmation of the camps impossible.”

Sokeel Park, director of strategy and research at Liberty in North Korea, says that because the UN report contains more than 320 interviews, “changing the details of one testimony is not going to change the overall findings or conclusion, or the weight of those findings.”

Enemies, real and imagined

Knowledge of the camps is confirmed by satellite imagery, which reveals tell-tale structures such as guard towers and wire fencing. As many as 120,000 people are believed to be held in four or five camps located in remote parts of the country. The largest of these, Camp 16, is some three times the size of Washington, DC, according to Amnesty International.

The camps date back to the rule of North Korea's founding leader Kim Il Sung. They first came to light in the 1960s and were more extensive than today as Mr. Kim used them to rid himself of vast numbers of enemies, real and imagined.

Shin’s account of torture and having to witness his mother’s execution made him one of the most recognizable advocates of North Korean human rights. While he claimed to have been born and lived at Camp 14 for 23 years before escaping, he now says some of the most significant events of his story actually happened at nearby Camp 18 where he moved as a child. The timeline of his experiences, such as his torture, has also altered significantly.

“Escape from Camp 14” author Blaine Harden, a former Washington Post Tokyo correspondent, has promised to clarify the truth, while stating he believes the most traumatic elements of Shin’s story such as torture. Harden had previously revealed that Shin had misled him about the circumstances of his mother’s death.

Scrutiny of testimony

Shin is not the first North Korean defector to face such scrutiny. In December, an Australian journalist revealed inconsistencies in the account of Park Yeon-mi. Park has blamed any confusion on her English ability and her childhood memory.

While conceding that Shin’s admission could cause some people to be more skeptical of defectors in future, Mr. Park of Liberty says the overall drive to address human rights abuses in North Korea won't be affected.

“Even with the new account, I don’t think it is really going to change views that much of how serious this issue is,” says the activist, who works with defectors from the North.

Jeong Kwang-il, a former inmate of Camp 15 and the director of the Seoul-based activist group No Chain for North Korea, says that defectors have been discredited before. He says disbelief about conditions inside North Korea has been long-standing, despite the number of those testifying.

“Needless to say, the entire human rights system of North Korea won’t be shaken by whether or not faith is lost and trust lessened,” he says. 

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