North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk retracts large swathes of his past

By Daniele Pestilli on February 1, 2015
Shin Dong-hyuk (originally Shin In Geun) addresses Human Rights Council. (CC)

His mother beat him, and he viewed her as a competitor for food. His father, who was allowed by guards to sleep with his mother just five nights a year, ignored him. His brother was a stranger. Children in the camp were untrustworthy and abusive. Before he learned anything else, Shin learned to survive by snitching on all of them.

This is the story of Shin In Geun, a North Korean defector who, unlike the rest of his countrymen, did not grow up surrounded by photographs and posters of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. Shin was born and raised in Camp 14 – a complete control district and North Korea's most repressive gulag. Brainwashed at birth by Ten Commandments, Shin still remembers the first one vividly: “Anyone caught escaping will be shot immediately.”

A bestselling book about Shin's harrowing ordeal by former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden entitled Escape from Camp 14 was published in 2013 and translated in about 20 languages. It recounts the details of his life: from when he scavenged for food, eating rats, insects and undigested corn in cow dung, to when his mother and brother were executed for a failed attempt to escape the camp. The biography is rife with specifics that would disturb any reader who did not grow up in such conditions. At around 13, he was tortured for his mother's and brother's planned escape: shackled on the ankles, wrists bound together by a rope that connected to the ceiling, Shin was suspended off the ground in a U shape. Guards proceeded to place a tub of burning charcoal below him, burning the flesh off his back. Another guard pierced his lower abdomen with an iron hook until, paralyzed by the pain, he fell unconscious. He was then held in an underground prison for seven months.

Several years later, he was sent to work at a garment factory, where, while carrying a malfunctioning sewing machine up a flight of stairs to have it repaired, Shin accidentally made it slip form his hands. The guards, who viewed sewing machines as more valuable than a prisoner's life, shouted

Even if you die, the sewing machine can't be brought back. Your hand is the problem. Cut his finger off!

In 2005, Shin successfully escaped Camp 14 by climbing over the body of an escapee parter, who died on an electrified fence during their planned bolt for freedom.

Or so we are told.

As heart-rending as Shin's story may sound, it is important to bear in mind that the entire book is riddled with fibs and falsehoods. In the book's introduction, author Blaine Harden writes, “He struggled to trust me. As he readily admits, he struggles to trust anyone. […] In writing this book, I have sometimes struggled to trust him. He misled me in our first interview about his role in the death of his mother, and he continued to do so in more than a dozen interviews. When he changed his story, I became worried about what else he might have made up.”

Mr. Harden very cleverly dealt with this difficulty in his book. In order not to mislead his readers – or perhaps to demonstrate the extent of his own confusion when drilling into Shin's past – he writes two chapters regarding the death of Shin's mother. The first is entitled, “Mother tries to escape” and it portrays Shin as an entirely unwary victim of his mother's and brother's planned escape. The second, “Mother tries to escape, version two” is utterly chilling: Shin confesses to have reported that his mother and brother were planning to escape to the camp guards, thereby beckoning their execution.

On January 17th, The Washington Post published an article entitled “Prominent N. Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk admits parts of story are inaccurate.” The entry explains that Shin, (who changed his name to Shin Dong-hyuk upon arriving to South Korea) recently admitted to Harden that when he was about 6 years old, he was transferred to the less harsh Camp 18 along with his mother and brother. It is there, he confessed, that he told authorities of his mother's planned escape, and it was also in this camp that the two were executed.

His new confessions also reveal a whole new side of the story which goes unmentioned in Harden's book: Shin claims he attempted to escape twice, once in 1999 and once in 2001. The second time, according to the same article by The Washington Post, he was caught by Chinese authorities and sent back to North Korea. It was then, at age 20, that he was tortured in Camp 14, repeatedly burned and held in an underground prison for six months.

The young defector apologized profusely for this new retelling to Harden, and was quoted saying he was “very sorry about all this mess.”

The fact that his story keeps changing should not deter readers from taking interest in his odyssey. In fact, Shin's new account is likely more revealing of his emotional and psychological trauma than anything else. The lack of trust towards others, the fear of revealing truths and the paranoia of surviving is a theme that is not only consistent throughout Escape from Camp 14, it is also consistent with other testimonies by North Korean defectors. The burns on his back are real; the scars on his legs from what he said was electric barbed-wire have been examined by medical experts; his bow-shaped arms are a corollary of difficult childhood labor.

Camp 14, Camp 18, Auschwitz, Dachau, Birkenau — what difference does it make? He is a political prison camp survivor, period. – Greg Scarlatoiu (Committee of Human Rights in North Korea)

Lying is also a means – Korean Proverb

Given Shin's increasing prominence in the international human rights scene, North Korea's top brass decided to release a video called “Lie and Truth” to deny allegations of torture and mistreatment, which the International Criminal Court can use as proof of crimes against humanity. The documentary released by the DPRK, evinces the North's perspective: Shin Dong-hyuk is at the forefront of a plot to fabricate stories about human rights in North Korea which are preposterous falsehoods.

In the video, his father Shin Gyong Sop (70) is interviewed with his stepmother, Ri Son Hui, in what appears to be a living-room furnished with a TV. The interviewee says, “I'm Shin Gyong Sop. […] I have two sons: Myong Il (stepson) and Shin In Geun. […] We've never lived in a so-called 'political prison camp'.” He shows a picture of a 6-year old, pudgy-cheeked Shin as he continues to explain, he went to primary school in Pongchang-ri and secondary school in Tukjang-ri, graduating from Suwon Secondary School. The scar on his leg, the father reveals, is from an accident that happened while he was pushing a mine wagon. The scar on his hips, the man continues, is from a burn that was caused by hot feed for a neighbor's dog.

Ironic as this new telling may sound, the details from this North Korean documentary become even sloppier when Shin Gyong Sop is asked about his ex-wife and eldest son. Gyong Sop confesses that they committed a murder in conspiracy, and were punished in accordance with the law. He claims he made his son In Geun report the murder case. A reason for sending his son to report the incident instead of doing so himself is not given.

An unidentified woman who allegedly lived in the neighborhood says the plot was to murder a lady called Kim Chun Ae in order to steal her money. Chun Ae was struck on the head, she says, two to three times with an axe by the elder son Hi Geun. He then covered the body with a blanket and threw it away in a storeroom. She claims this was the cause of their execution – not a planned escape.

To further slander Shin In Geun's “falsehoods” and portray him as an enemy of North Korea, a woman identified as Yun Yong Ok states In Geun raped her daughter, Ri Un Ha, in 2001 when she was only 13. The North's message is clear: Shin's story is a lie from start to finish.

According to an article by the New York Times, this video is what caused Shin to start retelling his past. Shin's father, Shin Gyong Sop, was recognized by another defector, a woman who had served time at Camp 18. It was her along with other defectors who started pressuring Shin to tell the truth about his story.

Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere. – Elie Wiesel, Night

The latest high-profile defector to South Korea is Park Yeon-mi – a girl born to an elite family in Pyongyang who fled the North in 2007. An article in The Diplomat by Mary Ann Jolley reveals the same distrust for her subject's account as Harden shows for Shin's. The mountains the girl said she crossed to escape are actually nonexistent: there is only a river. The executions she claims to have witnessed do not match the stories of previous defectors. The reason for their executions – watching foreign movies – also do not match up with what previous defectors have claimed. What to make of all this?

Despite lies upon lies, there is ample evidence supporting the argument that human rights in North Korea are abysmal. A book published in 2010 by Barbara Demick entitled Nothing to Envy portrays a mortifying account of the North, and tells the story of six defectors who fled to the South. And there are many similar narratives. Any story coming from a North Korean defector must be taken with a grain of salt – not because what they say is a fib, but because defectors learn to lie in order to survive. As we learn at the very beginning of Harden's book, “Shin learned to survive by snitching on all of them.” It is not a matter of deciding whether one account is more or less gruesome than another. As Elie Wiesel writes following his experiences in the Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald concentration camps, “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.”