North Korea's most famous defector changes his story

North Korea refugee and human rights activist Shin
North Korea refugee and human rights activist Shin Dong-hyuk spoke during a rally outside the White House while demonstrating for human rights in North Korea.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images 2012

Shin Dong-hyuk's story of fleeing North Korea captivated millions when "Escape from Camp 14" was published in 2012. The book, written by journalist Blaine Harden and based on years of interviews with Shin, told a terrifying and nearly unbelievable story.

Born into one of the country's most notorious prison camps, Shin lived his entire life under guard. He witnessed the execution of his mother and brother. He endured starvation and torture. Then, in his early 20s, after a life of captivity, he crawled beneath the camp's electric fence and made his way to the Chinese border.

His story quickly gained international attention. Shin has testified before the United Nations and was honored by Human Rights Watch, which declared him "the single strongest voice on atrocities taking place in North Korea."

'Escape from Camp 14' by Blaine Harden
'Escape from Camp 14' by Blaine Harden
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

But in January, almost three years after the book was published, Shin called Harden from Seoul with something to confess. The story he had told Harden, and had been telling the world, wasn't entirely true. Key facts differed, such as times and locations.

In the publishing world, this could seem like yet another turn on the false memoir merry-go-round, which has seen many bestselling titles fall apart under closer scrutiny. (Remember James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces"?)

But while recent memoir scandals involve authors fabricating traumatic twists that never were, Shin now claims he did the opposite: "Escape from Camp 14" might not be entirely true, he said, but what really happened was much worse.

Telling Shin's story

Telling the story of Shin, or of any North Korean defector, was problematic from the start: How do you fact-check something that happened in one of the most inaccessible places on the planet?

Harden acknowledged this issue from the outset: In "Camp 14," he admitted Shin was his only available source. That said, Harden wrote, "the story has been vetted and rang true to survivors of other labor camps, to scholars, to human rights advocates, and to the South Korean government."

Shin provided details about life in the prison camp that other defectors agreed could have only come from first-hand experience.

He had another powerful witness on his side: his own body. His many scars told the same story of violence that he did. Doctors confirmed the damage was consistent with that of victims of torture.

As his story spread, however, the details surrounding his confinement and torture raised some people's suspicions. Even Harden admitted that Shin had lied to him, repeatedly, in interviews; Harden refers to him in the book as an unreliable narrator of his own life.

But none spoke out louder against Shin's story than the North Korean government itself.

North Korea denies the very existence of the prison camps that Shin and many other defectors have described. When Shin began to share his story on the international stage, North Korea released a series of statements and videos in an attempt to discredit his account. In one video, Shin's father appears. He tells the camera that Shin never lived in a prison camp.

Shin was shocked: He thought his father was dead.

The new narrative

Shin now claims that "Escape from Camp 14" is a "sanitized" version of his life, one he created out of a mixture of shame, confusion and the impulse to avoid the most brutal of his memories. In an apology posted to Facebook, he said, "Every one of us have stories, or things we'd like to hide."

He maintains that he was born in Camp 14, but now says that he was transferred to the lighter-security Camp 18 at age 6. He lived there with his father after his mother and brother were executed. After a previously undisclosed escape to China, he was recaptured and transferred back to Camp 14. There he was tortured, to lengths he never admitted before. This torture took place at age 21, not 13, as he originally claimed.

In previous memoir scandals, these kinds of revisions have led publishers to pull books from the shelves or heavily revise them. But for "Escape from Camp 14," no details will be updated. Instead, Penguin will add a new foreword to future printings and e-book copies.

Harden made the new foreword available online, and in it he explains how Shin revised his story. He also acknowledges that he still has doubts about Shin's account of his life in North Korea.

"Shin told me he is now determined to tell the truth," Harden wrote. "Regrettably, he has told me this before. It seems prudent to expect more revisions."

The murky truths of trauma

Shin certainly isn't the first to embellish or bend the truth about traumatic experiences. In recent years, there has been a flurry of conflict memoirs called into question. Are these kind of partial truths to be expected?

In the new foreword for "Camp 14," Harden includes his conversations with Dr. Stevan Weine, a specialist on the impact of political violence and a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"The most genuine narratives of going through political violence are never completely coherent or finalized," Dr. Weine told Harden. "When someone goes through profound trauma and I don't hear a disjointed story, I am suspicious."

Even if trauma naturally leads to conflated stories, the credibility of the world's "single strongest voice" on North Korea's prison camps is now in question. Some worry Shin's tainted testimony could have repercussions. Another North Korean defector, who has also spoken publicly about her time in the prison camps, voiced her concern in the book's new foreword.

"He gave North Koreans an excuse to say we are all liars and to deny its human rights abuses," Kim Hye Sook, who spent twenty-eight years in a camp, told Harden. "Now, when I come forward with my story, somebody might be suspicious of me. I have to watch my back."

The Washington Post reports that members of a U.N. commission investigating human rights in North Korea said that "the changes in Shin's story do not alter the overwhelming body of evidence from several hundred survivors of the North Korean system, nor do they alter the need to hold North Korea's leaders to account."

For now, the political impact of Shin's revisions appears to be minimal. Though the most prominent voice against North Korea may now go quiet, there are others waiting to speak. Yeonmi Park, a 21-year-old defector with an incredible tale of survival and escape, has a book forthcoming from Penguin.

Further reading

For other accounts of life in North Korea:

"Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea" by Barbara Demick

Demick is the Beijing bureau chief for the The Los Angeles Times. After interviewing more than 100 defectors from North Korea, she wrote "Nothing to Envy," which chronicles the lives of six citizens over the period of 15 years that saw the death of Kim Il-Sung and the rise of Kim Jong-Il. "Nothing to Envy" was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2010.

"The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson

Johnson's novel about life in North Korea won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2013. The book follows Pak Jun Do from his troubled upbringing to his time as a professional kidnapper and beyond. In a review for The Guardian, Barbara Demick wrote: "'The Orphan Master's Son' deserves a place up there with dystopian classics such as '1984' and 'Brave New World,' but readers need to be reminded: it is a novel."

"A Kim Jong-Il Production" by Paul Fischer

The subtitle says it all: Fischer's book is "the extraordinary true story of a kidnapped filmmaker, his star actress and a young dictator's rise to power." In the late 1970s, South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and his actress wife, Choi Eun-Hee, were kidnapped by North Korea and pressed into service as filmmakers. Fischer captures their story and draws what the Boston Globe called "a vivid portrait of a regime marked by spectacle, oppression, and a heaping helping of farce."

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