Author Blaine Harden tackles North Korea in his latest book, The Great Leader and The Fighter Pilot, but it was his previous one that established him as one of the most prominent voices on the country.
Escape from Camp 14, recounting Shin Dong-hyuk’s harrowing tale of escaping one of the country’s most notorious prison camps, became an international bestseller and was translated into more than 27 languages.
In January the book reentered headlines, albeit for the wrong reasons: Shin had admitted to lying about elements of his story, confessing that he had spent much of his time in a different prison camp and that he had been tortured at a different age than previously claimed, among other details.
Harden announced the revelations himself on his website and subsequently updated the foreword of his book to include the latest version of the story. He, however, left the main text unchanged, a move that sparked criticism from some North Korea observers.
Asked in a recent interview with NK News if it was responsible to leave so much of the book unchanged, Harden emphasized the steps he had taken in an effort to be forthright.
“I felt an obligation to rush to Seoul and to interview Shin as much as I could and get as much information as I could from him and other defectors as quickly as I could, and get it onto my website and as a preface to the book,” Harden said. “And that’s why we decided to do it that way. It would have taken much longer, months, maybe even longer, to redo the whole book – so that was the decision that was made.”
Harden’s decision to leave the book unaltered, as well as his acknowledgement that Shin’s story could conceivably change again in the future, has led some North Korea-watchers to question his judgment. Joo Sung-ha, a defector who works as a reporter for South Korea’s DongA-Ilbo newspaper, recently accused him of being an “accomplice” to Shin’s “lies,” a quote to which Harden said he has no reaction.
“… I don’t know if that’s true (that the story will change), but I just think, having listened to Shin tell me a story for six years, and a story that he hadn’t changed for 10 years, it seems that if he’s decided to sort of open up that part of his memory that he had repressed or hidden, that it’s possible that other things could come out,” he said.
Harden, who told NK News he doesn’t know how much he and Shin have earned from sales of the book because payment comes in spurts, said his trust in Shin is justified because the most important parts of his story, such as his torture and incarceration in a prison camp, remain true.
As he states in the new introduction to Escape from Camp 14, medical examination has concluded that the scarring Shin bears is consistent with torture. Furthermore, Shin’s latest admission was prompted largely by video in which the well-known defector’s father insists that his son lived in a location that satellite imagery confirms as the site of a prison camp. Ahn Myung-chul, a former North Korean prison camp guard, has also called Shin the most tortured of all defectors, while another prison camp survivor, Kim Hye-sook, has said she witnessed the executions of his mother and brother.
Still, is there anything that would make Harden walk away from the story entirely?
“If he came from Greenwich, Connecticut, you know,” he said dryly. “He is a camp survivor, he was born in a camp and was tortured.”
Harden said those who no longer trust Shin should be mindful of the effect trauma can have on a person’s ability to recount painful experiences.
“I would say that victims of severe trauma have a very hard time telling a clear, linear chronological story,” he said. “There’s a psychiatrist quoted in the foreword of my book, who says that if he hears a simple, clear story from someone who has been a victim of severe prolonged violence, he is… skeptical about their story.”
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Featured Image: Shin Dong-hyuk addresses Human Rights Council by US Mission Geneva on 2014-03-17 12:21:33