For the last two weeks North Korea watchers have been much pre-occupied with what can be described as the “Shin Dong-hyuk affair.” At least some suspicions had been confirmed when Shin suddenly admitted what many had hitherto suspected: he did not spend most of his life in the total control zone of the notorious Camp 14; rather, Shin was an inmate of the more liberal Camp 18 (at least for a few years). As Shin in the last few years had emerged as the most promoted refugee worldwide, this admission changes much.
Shin’s admission, in particular, is more damaging because the best-selling book Escape from Camp 14, authored by Blaine Harden, had Shin’s story as its basis. Now the book looks far less reliable, even if we assume that Shin is not hiding anything else. His admissions still warrant a near-complete rewriting of the book, since he, for some still-unknown reasons, chose to lie about some of the important consequences of his imprisonment.
The Shin Dong-hyuk affair should not be taken lightly because it reminds us of the many challenges that North Korean defectors and their supporters face in the modern media world.
The real story of the average North Korean refugee is depressing, but hardly dramatic enough for the average media audience. This is a story of daily surveillance, hunger, destitution and humiliation, usually followed by a risky escape to China, where more humiliation and back-breaking work (but not hunger) waits for a desperate border crosser. While political concerns increasingly play a role in defection, such considerations remain rather marginal, and most of these people are motivated by simple dreams of a better material life. There is nothing wrong with such aspirations, which are common to most people worldwide. But for many Western middle class intellectuals, such material concerns appear rather vulgar and insufficiently lofty – and we should not forget these are the people who determine what much of the world’s media focuses upon.
INCENTIVE TO EXAGGERATE
The story of the average North Korean refugee does not appear to be that remarkably different from the life stories of the countless millions of people from Africa and South Asia. Sadly, malnourishment, daily violence and for many women, thinly disguised institutionalized rape are ubiquitous in many parts of the poor world. For the present author the difference is quite clear: While in the countries of South Asia, these problems have no immediate and quick solution, North Korea is surrounded by countries which have very similar cultural background but where such horrors are now things of the past. Hence, many would argue, with a more enlightened policy, Pyongyang can provide its people with far better lives.
North Korean refugees – and their assistants – have to compete with the poorer elements of the rest of the world
So, North Korean refugees – and their assistants – have to compete with the poorer elements of the rest of the world. This create an incentive for them to deliver more dramatic and, if necessary, embellished stories in order to win some attention in a rather crowded media market.
There is no doubt that large-scale human rights abuses are a part of daily life in North Korea’s prison camps. However, due to the nature of the North Korean system (especially pervasive surveillance) only a handful of people with such experiences have managed to get out – and many of them have serious reasons to keep a low profile and remain silent about what has happened to them. At the same time, there is a great incentive for the less scrupulous to exaggerate their stories by telling their audiences what they expect to hear. As the sad history of the 20th century demonstrates, people often have a habit of subconsciously channelling other’s memories and recollections as if they were their own. Thus, some of these additions might be inspired by the experiences of other people. Others might be just fantasies.
In the current media climate, such developments are almost unavoidable, but they produce a very depressing effect. The Shin Dong-hyuk affair probably has done more damage to the cause of helping North Korean refugees than any event in the short history of the North Korean refugee movement. Now it has become far easier to simply reject all refugee testimony.
THE UGLY TRUTH
Most who are inclined to do so are ideologically motivated, but also have little understanding about how North Korean society actually works. Even if it turns out that Shin Dong-hyuk only embellished his story, and even if he indeed spent a significant part of his life in the “mild” Camp 18, the Camp 14 did once exist and the abuses of the North Korea’s “absolute control zones” are documented through other independent sources (including the testimony of An Myung-chol, an escaped camp guard). In spite of this, references to recent events are likely to be used against dozens of refugees who will try and tell the world what happened to them.
This will have little impact on those who speak Korean and have dealt with North Korean issues for some time, but the general public is liable to become more skeptical.
With so few North Korean defectors willing and able to be public advocates on an international stage, it is almost inevitable that Pyongyang will try to take them down through character assassinations
This means we should not remain silent about some inconsistencies in refugees’ testimonies. We need the facts, and we should not create a climate that encourages lies, even if such lies actually reflect very painful circumstances and are driven by sincere concerns for the greater good. This is important simply because lies are bad, but it also has some practical dimension. When some people might argue that the “small lie for the great cause” makes sense, this is not only immoral, but also incorrect. With so few North Korean defectors willing and able to be public advocates on an international stage, it is almost inevitable that Pyongyang will try to take them down through character assassinations. If something in their stories is wrong, this will merely provide Pyongyang’s oligarchs and their henchmen with the perfect ammunition for such character assassinations.
We also must not forget that the repetition of lies also creates a fertile ground for future historical “revisionists,” i.e. attempts to justify the unjustifiable. While North Korea’s concentration camps and human rights abuses do not rival that of the Nazis, after the collapse of the North Korean system we will probably see the emergence of a small group of people comparable to the notorious holocaust “revisionist” David Irving who will seek to cast doubt or minimize the atrocities and abuses of the Pyongyang regime. The best way to make sure that such people do not have oxygen for their inflammatory cause is to be honest.
The media’s role is very important. As said above, the media is under constant pressure to exaggerate and embellish in order to sell content. However, it is to be hoped that journalists be more cautious in how they deal with refugees, subjecting their testimony to the most careful of scrutiny. This may result in some atrocities being unreported for the time being, but it is always better to err on the side of caution – while not forgetting that the victims should still be heard.
For the last two weeks North Korea watchers have been much pre-occupied with what can be described as the “Shin Dong-hyuk affair.” At least some suspicions had been confirmed when Shin suddenly admitted what many had hitherto suspected: he did not spend most of his life in the total control zone of the notorious Camp 14; rather, Shin was an inmate of the more liberal Camp 18 (at least for a
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.