In its report released in February 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry accused North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of committing crimes against humanity and called for the case to be referred to the International Criminal Court. For its report the COI, having been denied access to North Korea, instead carried out 240 confidential interviews with North Korean refugees living in South Korea, Japan, the UK and the U.S., including Shin Dong-hyuk.
In January 2015, however, the DPRK government released a video of Shin’s father, claiming Shin’s stories were fake. When questioned Shin confessed that parts of the stories in his book were not correct, including sections on his time in Camp 14 and the age he was tortured.
There are numerous other stories told by North Koreans that have later been found to be unreliable, even by North Korean standards. Lee Soon-ok offered testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004 about torture and burning Christians to death in hot iron liquid in a North Korean political prison. Lee was, however, later found not to be a political prisoner but a petty economic criminal.
Similarly, Kwon Hyuk gave accounts to the U.S. Congress that he was an intelligence officer at the DPRK Embassy in Beijing and witnessed human experiments in political prisons, which became a critical factor for passing the U.S. North Korea Human Rights Act in 2004. Kwon’s identity, however, was questioned by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, which argued that he never had access to such information. Kwon has since disappeared from public eyes.
While there is no doubt the North Korean regime has violated serious human rights, there is also a fundamental question about heavily relying on defectors’ testimonies as credible evidence. The evidence used in the U.S. North Korea Human Rights Act and the UN COI is based mostly on former North Koreans’ oral accounts, which are also the sources of information in North Korean studies and policy analyses elsewhere. The most representational non-academic work entirely depending on defectors’ accounts is Barbara Demick’s international best-seller Nothing to Envy.
I have interviewed North Koreans as a North Korea watcher and human rights researcher since 1999. What I’ve found suggests there are issues with the current methodologies used in investigating North Korean human rights and serious ethical dilemmas many researchers have to deal with.
One such issue is cash payments for interviewing North Korean refugees, which has been standard practice in the field. Initially, the cost was to cover the meals and local transport for interviewees, which was approximately $30 in the late 1990s when I first began interviewing North Korean refugees in China and South Korea. However, the fees were up to $200 per hour by the time I attempted to interview former North Koreans in May 2014 for another project I was involved with.
What is the impact of payment on interviewees’ stories?
A government official from the South Korean Ministry of Unification told me that the range of fees for interviewing former North Koreans in the South was $50-500 per hour, depending on the quality of information s/he had.
This practice raises serious questions about the payment as ethical research. What is the monetary value of a researcher’s evidence in the process of discovering the truth? What is the impact of payment on interviewees’ stories? How does the payment change the relation between a researcher and an interviewee? The more exclusive stories they have, the higher fees are. When a significant amount of fees and expenses are paid for exposure to the media, Western parliaments and the UN, participants tend to produce more ‘saleable’ stories. Defectors’ testimonies are not just unverifiable but also occasionally imagined, false or mythical as we find in Lee Soon-ok’s burning Christians and Kim Hye-sook’s killing babies to sell in the market.
Another issue is that one-on-one interviews often generate exaggerated stories and inaccurate information. Although there are ways to rectify false information through double and triple cross-examinations and through multiple sources, these methods are highly time-consuming and some information with single sources is never verifiable.
As the number of North Korean defectors reached 20,000 in 2010, earlier issues with oral accounts being not first-person eyewitness accounts but collections of secondary sources have been mitigated. First-person testimonies have become the norm but, at the same time, the stories involve younger victims with more tragic, dramatic, visual and emotional contents.
Both Kang Chol-hwan (a grandson of political prisoners who spent 10 years in Yoduk prison) and Shin Dong-hyuk (a son of a political prisoner who claims he was born in the Camp 14 in Kaechon) had dire camp experiences. Kang Chol Hwan, the co-author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang, was one of the very few political prisoners to appear before Shin Dong-hyuk, the real character of Escape from Camp 14. Both met the former U.S. President George W. Bush. Kang became a journalist at the South Korean conservative newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, and founded several advocacy groups. Shin’s story became an international bestseller and was made into a documentary film.
The DPRK dismissing evidence is perhaps unsurprising, but it was not just the DPRK government that claimed Shin’s accounts were fake. Many prominent North Koreans, including Kang Myong-do, whose uncle used to be the head of Camp 14, and others, all said that Shin’s stories were lies. In 2015 Shin confessed that some of the stories in his book were not true, raising serious questions about the veracity of his testimony.
A further complication is that changing names, using false identities or even identity laundering are common among North Koreans who escaped their home country. Lee Hyeon-seo, the author of TheGirl with Seven Names, talks about her experiences in China and South Korea, using different names or pretending to be Chinese to survive in harsh new environments. To what extent a responsible researcher has to believe the stories of those who keep changing their identities and what to make of it depends on the researcher’s exposure to the North Korean community.
On top of that a researcher’s national, gender and age identities affect the dynamics with North Korean interviewees. An older white male interviewer who is not a Korean speaker would hear different stories from what North Koreans tell a younger South Korean female researcher, for example. The native Korean language helps detect the nuance and sensitive information that cannot be identified when the communications are in English.
The UN COI and U.S. Congress hearings rely on interpreters, meaning that many important details are lost, misinterpreted or misrepresented. But it’s not just about things that get lost in translation, as the Korean language can also create hierarchical relations between younger researchers and older North Korean refugees as the former have to use honorific endings and the latter often do not.
When interviewing North Koreans, the researcher’s gender is another factor. Comments on the researcher’s body, characteristics, marital status, education, class or parents are common, which may not happen to a non-Korean male investigator who has to rely on interpreters, for example. Researchers studying North Koreans have to bear in mind these different dynamics generated by their own nationality, language, gender, ethnicity and age identities.
North Korean refugees are well-aware of what the interviewer wants to hear. Whether it is the UN COI, the U.S. Congress or the Western media, the question has been consistent: why did you leave North Korea and how terrible is it? The more terrible their stories are, the more attention they receive. The more international invitations they receive, the more cash comes in. It is how the capitalist system works: competition for more tragic and shocking stories. This is probably better than collecting trash or cleaning toilets in South Korea.
LOSING THE TRUTH
False testimonies are detrimental to many activists and researchers who have worked on North Korean human rights
In my 16 years of studying North Korean refugees, I have experienced numerous inconsistent stories, intentional omission and lies. I have also witnessed some involved in fraud and other illicit activities. In one case the breach of trust was so significant that I could not continue research. It affected my professional capacity to analyze and deliver credible stories in an ethical manner but also had a deep impact on personal trust I invested in the human subjects I sincerely cared about.
False testimonies are detrimental to many activists and researchers who have worked on North Korean human rights. Many former North Koreans identify the source of this phenomenon as the market pressure on defector-activists. Ahn Myung-chol, former prison guard at Camp 22, said people like shocking stories and defector-activists are merely responding to them. Chong Kwang-il, former prisoner at Camp 15, says that the fame that books and media exposure has brought to defector-activists also traps them.
Choi Sung-chol, the head of the UK One Korea Association, emphasizes that “Most North Koreans do not worry about small factual mistakes as long as the big picture that North Korea violates human rights is right. We, North Koreans, know what is true and what is fake, but, at the same time, we do not want to ruin the bigger political moves like the UN COI or the U.S. human rights act.”
One thing as of yet unclear is the role of the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS), given the nature of the institution’s mandates. How much agency the defector-activists have depends on the power and control exerted on them by the NIS. There are, however, occasional hints that the NIS has been involved in the defector-activists’ North Korean human rights movements. Kang Chol-hwan, for example, said in one of his media interviews that the “NIS knew details of the political prisons and prisoners there. They even had the photo of our house.” After graduating from Hanyang University with a management degree, Kang worked for the Korea Electric Power Corporation for some time. In 1998 he started providing testimonies for the U.S. Congress, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy. How this was arranged is unclear but I assume that it was done through the NIS. After a series of international testimonies and book publication, Kang established himself as a direct witness and victim of political prisons.
Shin Dong-hyuk left North Korea in January 2005 and arrived in Seoul in August 2006. Less than a year later in June 2007, Shin already had started talking to the UK government and parliamentarians. He published a memoir in Korean in 2007. It is hard to imagine how a 25-yeard old North Korean man rose this quickly within less than a year of arrival in Seoul, alone without any help. It is likely that the NIS has facilitated his career as an activist from the very beginning.
As the number of North Korean arrivals increases, the NIS sometimes makes false judgments about so-called North Korean “spies.” One NIS director was sentenced to five years imprisonment for framing a defector as a spy in May 2015.
To what extent the NIS is involved in the making of North Korean defector testimonies will remain unknown. It will continuously dampen the quality of reports on North Korean human rights.
Versions of this piece originally appeared on Asia & the Pacific Policy Society’s Policy Forum and on Song Jiyoung’s blog.
Main image: Rohan Radheya
In its report released in February 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry accused North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of committing crimes against humanity and called for the case to be referred to the International Criminal Court. For its report the COI, having been denied access to North Korea, instead carried out 240 confidential interviews with North Korean refugees living in South Korea,
Jiyoung (Jay) Song is a senior lecturer in Korean studies at the Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Previously, she was a director of migration at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute and assistant professor of political science in Singapore. She is the author of Human Rights Discourse in North Korea: Postcolonial, Marxist, and Confucian Perspectives (London: Routledge 2010).