Elie Wiesel is best known for his sobering literary work, Night. It is a reminder, based on personal experience, of the horrors of the Nazi years and the brutal human rights violations perpetrated in concentration camps across central Europe. In “The Story of ‘Night,’” Rachel Donadio observes that Wiesel was not always well received for his project to remind people of the great human suffering endured during those trying years. Leon Wiseltier was one such critic. Donadio quotes his disapproval of Wisel’s novel, The Oath, which tells the story of a pogrom, “for ‘turning history into legend.’” Going beyond purely descriptive-historical accounts of the era, into the realm of historical fiction, creates, according to Wieseltier, “a kind of elaborate superficiality which does justice neither to the author’s intentions nor to his terrible subject matter.” The issue of truth was for Wiesel’s critics a grave matter; it was Jewish persecution and the Holocaust he was writing about, after all. As it went with Wiesel and the Jewish Holocaust, so it goes with Shin Dong-hyuk and North Korean human rights.
By now it is well known that prominent defector-turned activist Shin Dong-hyuk fabricated part of his life story as it was told by former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden in the book Escape from Camp 14. Choe Sang-hun and Anna Fifield give good summaries of Shin’s now-altered story. The gist of it is: 1) Shin did not spend all his life inside Camp 14, a “total control zone;” rather, most of his prison life was spent at Camp 18 (a “less” brutal place, apparently). 2) The reason for Shin’s torture, which certainly did happen, was handed down for reasons different than those stated originally and at a different age: Shin had tried to escape (twice) and for that eventually found himself in Camp 14.
While it’s not uncommon for North Korean defectors to alter their life and/or escape stories (for dramatic, traumatic, or commercial reasons), Shin’s admission of fabrication is particularly notable because of his grand stature in the international community, especially among activist organizations campaigning against the North Korean government for its human rights abuses. Shin is, in other words, quite the public figure. And while this story is bound to develop over the coming days and weeks, here are a few insights and comments worth considering, or at least keeping in mind.
One: Shin represents more than words can convey. While Shin’s credibility as a leading North Korean human rights activist is surely undermined, his existence as a prison camp survivor will continue to speak for itself – regardless of how Shin might tell his own story. Professor Remco Breuker, a man who has made himself known as a advocate for defector voices (as a source of truth), captures this sentiment in a post at “Marginalia on Northern Korea,” where he writes:
[A]s a concentration camp survivor, for me Shin can say anything he thinks he should say about his experiences. It’s up to us to relate that to our non-traumatized and much less personal perception of North Korea and its camps. To distinguish ‘facts’ from ‘fiction.’ Which we have to do, because that is the language of the UN and of the ICC. But not necessarily the language of someone who lived through it. However inconvenient Shin publicly changing his narrative may be for for example the UN Commission of Inquiry, this is what structurally being abused by a state does to you. This is the reality of North Korean human rights abuses. They’ll live on long after the camps have gone. We really should know this. It’s not like we in our societies lack this historical experience, even if most of us lack the personal experience.
The professor is right to underscore the trauma-inducing nature of Shin’s experience (indeed, researchers find that slight fabrications are quite normal) and the prerogative of learned persons everywhere is to understand this, give sympathy, and take from his story the greater lesson to be learned: where human rights suffer, so, too, do people. Weisel’s Night has at least taught us this much. Where Brueker might go wrong is his assumption that Shin’s shifting narrative might be problematic for the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI). It most certainly is not. This leads to the next point.
Two: Methodological rigor is generally a good thing. Shin, who was interviewed for the report, was only one among hundreds. As Joshua Stanton writes in a post on the matter: “The U.N. Commission of Inquiry did not accuse North Korea of crimes against humanity based on the account of one man, but on the testimony of 80 witnesses and experts, and on 240 confidential interviews with victims and other witnesses… That doesn’t get Shin off the hook for lying to us, but it doesn’t get Kim Jong-un off the hook, either.”
Three: Shin may no longer continue to work as an activist. The problem here is not with the COI’s methodological standards (which are rigorous), or its legalistic understanding of “facts” and “fiction” (which is quite sound, despite what critical theorists like Christine Hong might say). The issue is Shin’s popularity and role in the human rights movement, with emphasis on the latter. A cursory look at coverage of Shin’s admission in Korean media proves this point. JTBC, Kyunghyang Sinmun, Joongang Ilbo, and others all based their story on Choi Sang-hun’s New York Times piece. Tellingly, the story did not flow from Seoul outwards, but from New York to Seoul. While defector discourse is, at times, a prominent issue in South Korean media, Shin represents something bigger than that. He is a prominent figure for an international social movement – a poster child, even. And while this must be seen as a good thing for bringing attention to human rights in North Korea, it makes the admission of fabrication all the more damaging. Again, Stanton is instructive:
Once a witness perjures himself, no responsible advocate can ever call him to testify again, and most courts would instruct the jurors to disregard his testimony in its entirety. I’ve met Shin, and although I couldn’t bring myself to ask him about Camp 14, he’s clearly a bright and energetic young man. In some other capacity, he can still have a great future. As an activist, however, his credibility is gone. No man matters more than the truth itself.
Undoubtedly, there are other perspectives to consider. One such angle is that North Korea’s information strategies in the Kim Jong-un era are not only confined to a domestic or peninsula-only audience. The notion that Shin’s admission was subtly coerced by North Korea when it televised via state-run media an “interview” with Shin’s father is not outside the realm of possibility. According to Reuters, “Shin said in October the video may have been a veiled threat that his father would be killed if he did not keep quiet. But he was reluctant to discuss the discrepancies that his father referred to.” In a column published late last year in the Hankyoreh, Kim Bo-geun pointed out that a woman who had spent time with him in Camp 18 identified Shin’s father after seeing him in the interview. This tidbit of information was cited in Choi Sang-hun’s report as well. Whether this actually led to Shin admitting to parts of his story being false is not yet confirmed.
For now, it will be enough to consider the consequences and appropriate response to Shin’s new story. Shin’s activist days may well be over, but what about his legacy? That’s something he cannot define.