Shin Dong-hyuk told a powerful story about the misery of life in a North Korean prison camp, becoming the most famous defector from that notoriously reclusive country.
His story seemed well-documented. Veteran journalist Blaine Harden brought him to prominence in a 2012 book, Escape from Camp 14, which has been published in 27 languages. 60 Minutes featured him in a report by Anderson Cooper. Shin’s testimony played a role in a United Nations report condemning North Korea for human rights violations.
Now Shin says some parts of his account were not true.
His story raises the tricky question of authenticating information from North Korea and other largely closed societies where access to journalists and other outsiders ranges from extremely limited to nonexistent.
Harden, a former Washington Post reporter, wrote on his website that he learned last Friday that Shin “had told friends an account of his life that differed substantially from the book.”
Harden goes on to quote Shin as saying: “When I agreed to share my experience for the book, I found it was too painful to think about some of the things that happened. … So I made a compromise in my mind. I altered some details that I thought wouldn’t matter. I didn’t want to tell exactly what happened in order not to relive these painful moments all over again.”
Shin, 32, maintains he accurately described his basic story. He says he was indeed born at Camp 14, north of the capital Pyongyang, and that he was subjected to torture.
But he originally said he spent his whole life at that camp until he escaped in 2005, when he was in his early 20s. Now he says that when he was 6, he and his family were transferred to a nearby prison, Camp 18. There, he says, he witnessed the execution of his mother and brother.
He also now says he escaped the camp twice as a teenager: once in 1999, and once in 2001. After his second escape, he says, he managed to reach China but was arrested and sent back to North Korea for punishment in the more brutal Camp 14. He’d originally said he was 13 at the time of the torture that left his back scarred. Now he says he was 20 when that happened.
Other North Korean defectors had raised questions about Shin’s account. Harden acknowledged the fact-checking limitations, writing in the book:
“There was, of course, no way to confirm what he was saying. Shin was the only available source of information about his early life. His mother and brother were dead. His father was still in the camp or perhaps dead too. The North Korean government could hardly set the record straight, since it denies that Camp 14 exists. Still, the story had been vetted and rang true to survivors of other labor camps, to scholars, to human rights advocates, and to the South Korean government.”
North Korea pounced on the latest development, saying Shin’s claims were false and again denying the existence of the camp.
The state-run KCNA news agency called Shin a swindler who “styled himself a ‘survivor’ in the ‘concentration camp of political offenders’ that does not exist.”
Shin’s case is likely to raise doubts about future stories from North Korean defectors.
Meanwhile, Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said memory loss or confusion over details is not unusual in cases where there is trauma.
“It’s really quite common,” he said. “It depends on the extent of the trauma that people have suffered. Can you remember the name of your third-grade teacher? Or where you were when you where 12 years old, when you had your birthday party? Or other important events in your life? I can’t.”
Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, agreed.
“The true surprise here is that we expect a former political prisoner who went through such unthinkable tragedy to remember everything in minute detail and in chronological order,” Scarlatoiu said.
Asked if his organization trusted Shin, he said the foundation of Shin’s story is still intact.
“There is a very fine line to walk here. NGOs require academic rigor, but also compassion,” he said.
However, Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, said journalists always need to consider the veracity of their source.
“Are they for real? Is this person legitimate? Because there are totally fraudulent, made-up people who masquerade around trying to win propaganda points against this or that regime,” Sesno said.