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In Depth: The Shin Dong-hyuk Fiasco

Words by Robert Lauler

Shot by U.S. Mission Geneva (Eric Bridiers) / CC BY-ND via Flickr

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The world has never paid so much attention to North Korea’s human rights situation. This has created an unprecedented opportunity for activists to spread the word about what atrocities occur there. Such attention has also made it easier for North Korean defectors, who currently number around 27,000 in South Korea, to gain a platform both in South Korea and internationally.

Shin Dong-hyuk was at one time hailed as someone who had survived in the worst of circumstances: surviving a childhood in a Total Control Zone (Camp 14), witnessing the murder of his mother and brother, and making a harrowing escape through China to South Korea. His story was stirring enough to first make print in Korean way back in 2008, and then in 2012, Blaine Harden, an American writer, took hold of Shin’s story and released it in English (“Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West”). Shin’s book is partly credited for increasing awareness about North Korea’s human rights situation and contributing to the establishment of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korean Human Rights.

Shin had become one of the most recognized activists for North Korean human rights until it all came crashing down early this year. Shin admitted that crucial parts of his story were made up. He had not grown up in a Total Control Zone, but had instead spent most of his life in a lesser, more tolerant prison; moreover, he had escaped once to China before being caught and sent back. His admission to these facts threw suspicion onto his entire story. North Korea had long claimed that Shin was a liar, even claiming that Shin had raped a 13 year-old girl. While this more dubious claim may never be proven, Shin sealed his fate as an activist by not telling the whole truth.

While Shin’s betrayal is frustrating (and specific reasons for why he lied unknown), one of the strangest parts of this story concerns the reaction to Shin’s outing by some members of the defector community. Certain members of the community have gone on record saying they had doubts about Shin’s legitimacy from the beginning. They claim that Shin had accomplished a “miracle” (aka. “an impossible feat”) if he had really escaped a Total Control Zone – something no one has ever done. Some defectors even chose to blame author Blaine Harden for not having sufficiently “checked out” Shin’s story before writing the book.

This last point is particularly disturbing. There is no sure-fire way for outsiders to judge whether defectors are telling the truth or not, and Shin appeared to be recognized as legitimate by high profile members of the defector community. Harden, after all, did not write his book in a bubble. While ultimately the blame falls on Shin himself, if other defectors had serious doubts about Shin’s legitimacy, these doubts should have been voiced. They were not, unfortunately, and ultimately the North Korean government gained some direly needed ammunition for its propaganda machine.

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