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Hither and Yon

Journalism nightmare: How to confirm a defector’s story about surviving the kingdom of lies

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
Defectors from North Korea all have harrowing tales of suffering that are difficult to imagine in real life.
Their stories differ widely depending on the circumstances — some have spent time in prisons, most have not. Many have been hungry, or have seen relatives and friends starve to death or die of some dreaded disease. They’ve witnessed executions of those caught for offenses that mostly have to do with their struggle to survive — the theft of rice or selling stolen goods on the black market, for instance, are capital offenses.
Typically defectors make their way across the Tumen River, the shallow stream that divides the far northeastern reaches of North Korea from China’s Jilin Province. The Tumen is easy to ford, but a defector must then escape the patrols on the North Korean side or arrange for safe passage by paying huge fees to brokers, who then pay off the guards.
Defectors, if they’re lucky, hide out within the large Korean community on the Chinese side. Many of the women are likely to wind up in forced marriages or in bars and brothels. The men look for jobs working for a pittance on farms, in forests or mines. The lucky ones may encounter a missionary who can help them find shelter, food and a way out of China through Mongolia or Southeast Asia. If they’re unlucky, they get arrested by Chinese police and “repatriated” to North Korea, where they’re beaten up, perhaps tortured and, if no other “crimes” are on their records, imprisoned for several months.
These stories are routine. The saga of Shin Dong-hyuk, the hero of “Escape from Camp 14,” the best-selling book by a former correspondent, Blaine Harden, was more compelling. He claims not only to have been born in Camp 14, the child of imprisoned parents, but to have escaped through an electrified fence. On the way, he saw his mother and brother executed, endured horrific torture, including burns, and had a finger cut off by a guard. No one had previously escaped from Camp 14, the worst of the gulags.
Or so Shin said. Now he acknowledges that important elements of his story, horrific though it was, were not quite true. It’s easy to see why Shin did not want to complicate the story with details that might be a distraction.
It’s also easy to see why Harden might have been taken in. Shin is an engaging character. When I first met him at a press conference at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club in 2007, I had no reason to doubt what he said. On the other hand, with no way to check on all the details, I mainly quoted him as saying Kim Jong-il should spend ”one hour” in the camp to see for himself what it was like. I didn’t write a lot about his claims.
Shin said at the time that he had begun writing about his experiences in the South Korean consulate in Shanghai, where he had found sanctuary from the Chinese police after working for a year in a logging camp. His book, “Escape to the Outside World: From Total Control Prison Camp No. 14 in North Korea,” published in Korean by the North Korean Human Rights Data Center in Seoul, forms the basis for much of Harden’s book though Harden interviewed him at tremendous length for an original story.
What is so disheartening is that doubters and skeptics and critics can now agree with North Korea’s claim that all those reports of egregious human rights violations are false. North Korea is denouncing Shin’s account along with everything else in the report by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry that forms the basis of proposals to bring the North Korean case before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. If no one can accept whatever Shin says at face value, at least he has the scars to prove he went through a totally horrendous ordeal.
Harden as the writer also has to share the blame for Shin’s skewed account. A veteran correspondent, he had little experience covering Korea and may not have known as much as he believed he did. Had he spent more time in Korea, he would have been far more attuned to the likelihood that Shin, like so many other defectors, would have had to have twisted the facts.
A simple translation of Shin’s own book would have been preferable to a slick retelling. No, it might not have sold a lot of copies. It would, however, have been more difficult to refute than a best-seller published abroad. How well can Shin now serve the cause of human rights in North Korea while answering the gnawing question, “Why didn’t you stick to the facts — and how can we believe you?”
Columnist Donald Kirk has seen Shin Dong-hyuk half a dozen times, in Seoul, London, and Washington, and also has interviewed defectors in Seoul and north of the Tumen River in China. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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