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Seattle Author Sifts Truth From Fabrication As North Korean Defector Changes Story

Eric Bridiers
U. S. Mission General
Shin Dong-hyuk addresses the UN Human Rights Council in 2014.

WEB EXTRA: Harden discusses what happened when the subject of his first book on North Korea, "Escape from Camp 14." changed his story.

"Early in 2015, Shin Dong-hyuk changed his story.”

That’s how Seattle author confronts the admission by Shin, the main subject of Harden’s bestseller “Escape from Camp 14,” that parts of his story were not truthful. Shin was and still is believed to be the only North Korean born in that country’s notorious gulag of political prison camps to escape and defect.  He had become one of the most prominent North Korean defectors in the world, and a lead witness in the case for bringing charges against North Korea in the International Criminal Court.

With that admission, much of Shin’s story seemed in doubt. But as Harden tracked down the parts of Shin’s story that could be corroborated, the parts that were consistent with evidence such as the scars of torture on his body, and looked into how torture and trauma affect victims’ abilities to tell their own stories, he came to the conclusion that the broad sweep of Shin’s narrative still stands.

An Unreliable Narrator

Harden appeared on KPLU’s “Sound Effect” to talk about his new book about North Korea, “The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way To Freedom.”

Speaking of Shin’s story and his previous book, Harden noted that he knew all along that Shin was something of an unreliable narrator.

“There are two chapters in the book about his lying to me about what his life had amounted to and how his mother and brother were killed. So the book has a very large element of skepticism about his story,” Harden said.

Part of the problem is that victims of trauma, particularly political violence, often have difficulty communicating their testimony.

‘What I did not understand and did not appreciate when I wrote the book originally was the degree to which torture and trauma will twist up the way a person tells a story,:” Harden said. “This is not a good development for Shin, or for somebody who writes a non-fiction book. It was a risk to write about Shin when you couldn’t know absolutely everything he said was true.”

An Even More Complicated Story

Shin, it now appears, did not spend his entire captivity in the notorious Camp 14. Rather, the area where he lived was redistricted at some point into a less restrictive, though still highly controlled camp.

Some of the details about his torture now appear to be made up, though the real story is likely no less gruesome.

“People who know the torture techniques of the secret police in North Korea, and who’ve surveyed his body, say that he’s the single most tortured person who survived the camps who’s come to South Korea,” Harden said.

Shin now says he made two escape attempts, rather than one. And, disturbingly, he now admits to an even greater role in the deaths of his mother and brother. Shin had already reported that he betrayed their plans to escape to camp guards. He now adds that he endorsed a false accusation of murder, which was used to justify his mother and brother’s executions.

Impact On Human Rights Case

One reason Shin’s changed narrative is so problematic is his central role in the human rights case against North Korea. Harden says the admission of partial falsehoods is a setback for the efforts.

“When he changed his story it was a blow to the credibility of the effort to call North Korea on what the United Nations says are crimes against humanity,” Harden said. “Shin’s story is not the make-or-break, but because of the book, he became the face of the movement to hold North Korea to account.”

That effort is proceeding, underscored by hundreds of other witnesses and pieces of evidence. Still the episode has complicated the case.

“North Korea has seized on the inconsistencies in Shin’s story, jumping up and down with glee, and said everything now is illegitimate – because Shin spent some time in a camp across the river, rather than just being in Camp 14,” Harden laments.

Ultimately, Harden said Shin’s story still sheds light on one of the most opaque compartments of an already shadowy regime, and therefore remains valuable.

“He was very knowledgeable about camp operations. His body was more severely scarred than anybody else who’s come out of those camps. His whole affect was that of trauma,” he said. “So Shin remains an important witness, although he’s flawed. And he’s flawed in a way that all trauma survivors are flawed.”

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.