The last few years have been marked by a growing interest in (and debate over) North Korean refugee testimony, especially related to the cases of political persecution. Indeed, a couple of books authored or co-authored by refugees got into best-seller lists recently, with Blaine Harden’s book Escape from Camp 14, which tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, being best known. The frequent public speeches by some refugees, notably Yeonmi Park, have attracted attention as well.
These marks something of a sea change, since until the late 2000s, the former North Korean prison inmates, with the notable exception of Kang Chol-hwan, had remained largely silent in the English-speaking world.
This change has created controversy, however. Some claims by defectors have been found to contain contradictions, while others have widely been considered implausible. Shin Dong-hyuk even went so far as to explicitly admit that he had made up a significant part of his memoir. Some serious doubts have also been expressed about some of the things that Park Yeon-mi has said about the cases of persecution she allegedly witnessed.
Unsurprisingly, a number of observers and scholars, as well as lay readers with an interest in North Korea, began to express skepticism about refugees’ testimony or even write off most of what is known about the North Korean prison camps as untrustworthy.
As we will see later, such worries and doubts are not unfounded, but one should not go from the excessively credulous acceptance of refugees stories to the outright denial of all they claim.
To start with, we should remember that the world has seen very similar developments a number of times throughout the last century.
In the late 1930s, some former inmates of Soviet prison camps managed to escape and began to tell their stories of Stalin’s Gulag to Western audiences. Initially, they were accused of lying by many. The great communist experiment was much in vogue amongst Western intellectuals at the time, while many establishment figures, being afraid of Nazi Germany, did not want to alienate the Soviet ally.
These strange bedfellows produced some remarkable results, as writing by the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, in the midst of famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s, reassured readers that Ukrainian and Russian farmers lived in a nutritional paradise. In August 1933, right after some 5 million Russian, Ukrainian and Kazakh farmers had starved to death, Duranty wrote, “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.”
He was seconded by none other than George Bernard Shaw, an Irish playwright and Nobel Prize winner who visited Russia in 1931. He came back with descriptions of the Soviet “prosperity” and in 1933 enlightened his admirers: “We desire to record that we saw nowhere evidence of such economic slavery, privation, unemployment and cynical despair of betterment as are accepted as inevitable and ignored by the press as having ‘no news value’ in our own countries.”
On the other hand, Joseph Davies, the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow in 1936-1938, during the height of the political purges, upon his return to the U.S. produced a book where he explicitly and enthusiastically supported Stalin’s version of the purges as a justified preemptive strike against Nazi spies. Admittedly, ambassadors are not paid to be honest in their public pronouncements, and the book (late made into a successful feature film) was released when the U.S. needed Soviet support. Nonetheless, one can suspect that, apart from a dose of healthy professional cynicism, a measure of willful ignorance was present as well.
During the court proceedings, many French intellectuals confidently testified that the Gulag did not and could not possibly exist
Even after the Second World War, when the number of Soviet escapees increased dramatically, stories of famine and massive prison camps were still rejected by a significant share of the educated Western public. In 1949, during a remarkable court action in France Victor Kravchenko, a former Soviet engineer and army officer who had defected in 1944, sued for libel the “progressive” publications who claimed that his exposure of the famine and prison camps in the USSR was a lie. During the court proceedings, many French intellectuals confidently testified that the Gulag did not and could not possibly exist. Jean-Paul Sartre, then the rising star of the Paris intellectuals, was especially vehement in his attacks against Victor Kravchenko.
In a strange paradox, the Western intellectuals changed their mind and admitted that the Soviet Union was a repressive and poor place exactly when the post-Stalin governments took measures that dramatically decreased the number of political prisoners (roughly 1,000-fold decrease between 1953 and 1963) and started to improve living standards.
The same pattern can also be found elsewhere. It is well known that the initial refugee reports about massive killing being carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were rejected by many intellectuals weary of war in Indochina. One of the most vocal skeptics was Noam Chomsky. The famed linguist turned political intellectual dismissed the first reports about the killing fields of Cambodia as “third-rate propaganda … which collapses under the barest scrutiny.”
The same skepticism was to be found when refugees from the Cultural Revolution in China made it to Hong Kong and other places. Their stories about the atrocities perpetrated by Red Guards were often dismissed as crude Cold War propaganda. While in the late 1960s Red Guards were busy killing people, Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were busy expressing their admiration for Chinese policies from the comfort of the Left Bank cafés.
It is easy to see that in all the cases mentioned above, the Western public (to be more precise: the Western academic and media elite) projected their own internal ideological and political quarrels onto countries they knew little about and perhaps cared about even less. Both Stalin’s Soviet Russia and Mao’s New China were widely seen as symbolic alternatives to the existing social and political order that many intellectuals had good reason to feel unhappy about.
Part of this logic is applicable to North Korea, too. Obviously, there are very few in the Western academic establishment who want to live in a country quite as repressive as North Korea. Nonetheless, many of these people give the country the benefit of the doubt – essentially because they, rightly or wrongly, see North Korea as an underdog being pressured by the “U.S. imperialist war machine.” Thus, we should not therefore be surprised that a skeptical approach to refugee testimony is much more often found on the political left and, broadly speaking, in academia.
INCENTIVE TO INVENT
However, things are not so simple and cannot be reduced to the ideological or political bias alone. Refugee testimony often does contain fantasies or exaggerations, and the refugee authors are actually pushed to exaggerate and fantasize. In the case of Shin Dong-hyuk, some lies have been exposed. Under pressure of evidence, often produced by the fellow defectors, Shin admitted what many came to suspect: He did not spent all his imprisonment in Camp 14, but was actually also an inmate at the much less severe Camp 18.
To be blunt, the more heart-rending and dramatic the narrative, the more attention it is likely to get
One has to admit that there exist serious incentives to exaggerate or even fabricate stories about their suffering. To be blunt, the more heart-rending and dramatic the narrative, the more attention it is likely to get. Some refugees probably do not seek such attention for selfish reasons, since ideology and changing their country from the outside is an important motivator for some. This hardly makes a difference, though.
It does not help that it is often virtually impossible to verify stories told by the defectors. The number of people with prison experience is still small, and cross-checking is usually impossible.
However, it is naïve to the extreme to deny that North Korea is a very repressive place. It is probably far more foolish than the foolishness of those who denied the repressiveness of Stalin’s Russia. After all, we have satellite imagery, and the number of former inmates who have fled overseas is counted in the dozens. Not all of them went public, and those who did seldom address Western audiences, but the number of testimonies is truly large, and growing fast.
While we should keep in mind the conflict of interest that lies behind some testimony, this is not enough to dismiss the atrocities that have gone on there. The evidence is overwhelming. Even though some details in individual testimony may be exaggerated, the fact remains: North Korea is a state which imprisons its people on a scale with little if any parallels in the modern world, and treats inmates with remarkable brutality.
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Featured Image: Shin Dong-hyuk addresses Human Rights Council by US Mission Geneva on 2014-03-17 12:23:02