North Korea: Defectors and Their Skeptics
Image Credit: REUTERS/KCNA

North Korea: Defectors and Their Skeptics


In between sobs, Park Yeonmi gave her account of life in North Korea. Public executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and suffocating censorship were just some of the harsh realities faced by people in “the darkest place in the world,” the 21-year-old defector told an international audience at the Young World Summit in Dublin, Ireland earlier this month.

While North Korean defectors have spoken publicly about life under the regime before, the attractive university student has arguably captured the attention of international media like no other in recent memory. Her emotional speech in Dublin received coverage in outlets such as the BBC, Al Jazeera and the Daily Mail.

But alongside outpourings of sympathy and praise, Park has also attracted a quieter but no less persistent stream of criticism from skeptics who reject her characterization of North Korea.

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Felix Abt is one such critic. A Swiss-born businessman who lived and worked in North Korea for seven years until 2009, he has frequently questioned media portrayals of the human rights situation in the country.

“I suppose many of the stories that defectors present are true, even though they cannot be verified. I only challenge claims that are obviously exaggerated or plain false,” Abt told The Diplomat by email.

In Park’s case, Abt has honed in on a recent newspaper interview that quoted her drawing a comparison between a canal in Dublin and rivers in her homeland: “Every morning at riversides like this you can see dead bodies floating. If you go out in the morning, they are there.”*

Abt responded to the article with a photo on his Twitter account that appears to show children happily at play in a North Korean river.

“I widely traveled the country and didn’t come across dead bodies,” said Abt. “Sure, there may have been floating bodies in rivers in the terrible crisis years of the 90s when 600,000 people starved to death according to an estimate by the U.N. official who was then supervising foreign aid during the famine in the country. But since then, things have clearly changed for the better (no more mass starvation, recovery of the economy etc.) which many activists do not recognize.”

Asked if he could be sure he hadn’t been shielded from abuses by the authorities, Abt said he had traveled unaccompanied to even remote provinces of the country.

“Also, my visits were of a more technical nature and were therefore not orchestrated like in the case of foreign visitors and resident diplomats,” he said. “So I did see poverty-stricken areas, infrastructure in shambles, broken bridges over rivers and I would certainly have seen dead bodies if there were any.”

Abt has challenged other defectors’ claims in the past, such as comments by former doctor Ri Kwang-chol in 2006 that there are no physically disabled people in North Korea due to a policy of infanticide for handicapped newborns. On the contrary, Abt noted, Pyongyang sent athletes to this month’s Asian Paralympics in South Korea’s Incheon. It was North Korea’s first participation in the competition.

Other defectors, however, have told media such as Free North Korea Radio of widespread infanticide against disabled infants.

Abt has detractors of his own, some of whom, such as Joshua Stanton, the operator of the blog One Free Korea, have called him an apologist.

“I can understand their reaction: if you read and hear only horrifying reports about a country for decades, you expect nothing but shocking accounts of cruelty and subjection to come out of it,” said Abt.

In one interview, Abt had lamented that Westerners often misunderstand how people in Confucian societies such as North Korea show respect to their leaders and expect to be cared for in return.

“If no meaningful economic and social reforms are carried out the people may withdraw the ‘mandate of heaven’ (outlined by Confucius),” Abt explained when asked to clarify whether he believes the leadership takes care of its citizens in accordance with their wishes. “The rulers know that and they seem to follow, albeit very slowly and cautiously, Vietnam’s and China’s examples.”

An even harsher critic of Park’s has been Michael Bassett, a North Korea analyst who spent several years stationed at the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas for the U.S. military.

While he does not doubt other defectors and accepts the findings of the recent UN Commission of Inquiry’s report into North Korea’s human rights abuses, he has called Park a liar and a “spinstress,” taking issue with her river anecdote and use of the word “holocaust” to describe the situation in the country.

“She wants to sensationalize the narrative to make everybody think that, you know, this is the ‘90s North Korea. It’s not,” Bassett said.

He has also claimed that Park is being used to promote an agenda of sanctions against the country and economic liberalization by organizations such as Freedom Factory, a Seoul-based free market think tank where she is a media fellow.

“It sounds like she is being fed a narrative, it sounds like she is being told to perform,” Bassett said.

Bassett has pointed to a message sent to him by Park asking him not to use her name in his arguments against the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2014, currently pending in the U.S. Congress. He has claimed the message is too fluent to have been written by a non-native English speaker.

Park is not the first defector to have their testimony questioned or dismissed outright. The North Korean government has often labeled defectors as criminals or degenerates. Meanwhile, Blaine Harden, the author of one of the most famous defector accounts, has acknowledged that his source Shin Dong-hyuk lied to him about the execution of his mother.

Park rejected the accusations against her in a phone interview on Monday.

She said that her comment about bodies in rivers had been misconstrued, either because the journalist had left out the context or because of her less-than-perfect English.

“What I meant was… it was the countryside and special border areas and in winters (you could see bodies in rivers),” Park, who fled North Korea in 2007, said.

“I cannot recheck all the journalists, all the articles. So after a second, really, it is out of my control,” she said, adding that she hadn’t thought such accusations were worth responding to until now.

She also denied being used for an ulterior agenda, calling Bassett childish and impossible to engage in productive conversation. She said he was angry with her for supporting the pending U.S. sanctions.

“Can’t you see he is trying to use me now?” she said. “Not the other people. I got lots of attention and if he criticizes me the people will maybe listen to him because he is doing nothing and nobody listens to him.”

She noted the numerous reports of brutality out of North Korea and lamented that dismissing defector testimony could stop others from coming forward.

“These kinds of people really upset me because people risk their lives to come out and they try to raise awareness and they are telling their stories and are really fearful sometimes,” she said. “But these kinds of people really discourage them and…maybe…they cannot come out and tell their stories.

Park, however, vowed she would not be deterred from raising awareness about North Korea.

“I think truth has a power,” she said.

John Power is a Seoul-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @John_F_Power.

*Update: It appears the newspaper misquoted Park. What she actually said was: “Every morning and every … like … some riverside like this [gesturing out the window] you can see the dead bodies floating, and if you go out in the morning and just people dead there.” It should also be noted that the BBC did in fact film a body in the Tumen river on the Chinese side of the border in 2008.

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