January 23, 2015 13:04
If there is once place on Earth where reality is stranger than fiction, it is North Korea, with its hereditary rule, massive oppression and starving masses. That is why the personal accounts of North Korean defectors who risked their lives to escape to freedom have captured the imagination of the international community.
Their accounts are harrowing and their stories of survival against all the odds often heroic.
But now the confession of one defector that he invented parts of key testimony about the isolated country has cast a pall over all such accounts. The New York Times and other U.S. media are taking the matter very seriously, since the accounts of Shin Dong-hyuk, who is something of a poster boy for the human rights movement, played a key role in a UN report that recommended sending North Korean leaders to the International Criminal Court.
Shin was the subject of a book titled "Escape from Camp 14" by an American journalist, which was translated into 27 different languages. In it, Shin claims he was captured and tortured at the age of 13 when he tried to escape from the notorious Camp 14. But recently he has corrected his age at the time to 20 and now says he did not spend his entire life in Camp 14 but most of it in Camp 18, a less brutal place.
This confession need not mean that his entire story is a fabrication, and it does not change the fact that horrible human rights abuses are taking place in the North. As a U.S. State Department official put it, "It's a question of whether he was in the most gruesome or simply one that is very gruesome."
Still, for some people Shin's admission has cast doubt on the stories of other North Korean defectors, and the ramifications could become enormous. Recently, a Korean-American woman by the name of Shin Eun-mi embarked on a bizarre stage tour of South Korea telling audiences that North Korea is not nearly as bad as its reputation based on a couple of package tours she took to the North.
She failed to win hearts and minds and was accused of being at best naïve, because the public trusted the accounts of defectors more than the ramblings of a tourist.
But there are concerns that Shin's confession may have provided pro-North Korean activists with the ammunition to discredit the accounts of other defectors. That would be disastrous. Already North Korea's official Uriminzokkiri website has claimed that Shin's account was fabricated from start to finish.
And it is possible that as their numbers in South Korea grow, North Korean defectors face a growing temptation to embellish their personal experiences to draw attention to themselves. Sadly that means the authorities will have to make a greater effort to verify their accounts, if only to demonstrate to the public that they are telling the truth.
North Korean defectors do not need to embellish their accounts. The truth is harrowing enough to grab the attention and move the hearts of the international community.
Shin's admission bears a valuable lesson that even a minor discrepancy in such an account could damage to the credibility of all defectors. The most powerful weapon in the fight against North Korea's human rights abuses is the truth.
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