Robert Huish is an assistant professor in International Development Studies at Dalhousie University, and he established the student led activist group, The Camp 14 Project.
Shin Dong-hyuk has suffered unimaginable horrors. Born in a North Korean prison camp, Mr. Shin was shunned by his parents, bullied and beaten by prison guards, forced to watch the execution of his mother and brother, and routinely tortured. Mr. Shin's life story has galvanized human rights activism against North Korea, more so than any other defector in recent history. "Witness number one" at the UN Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in the DPRK, Mr. Shin has compelled the world to act to condemn the Kim Regime.
When Blaine Harden, author of Escape from Camp 14 – a book chronicling Mr. Shin's journey – told the Washington Post on Saturday that Mr. Shin misled him in recounting his story, North Korean human rights activists were shocked and hurt. Mr. Shin now says that he was born in Camp 18, not Camp 14. He escaped Camp 18 before being caught and returned, and then transported to Camp 14. The prison guards roasted him over a fire, suspended by a meat hook, at age 20, not age 13.
Defector testimony is a powerful political weapon, and inaccuracies such as these can undermine it. What's more, Western society disdains false testimony. No wonder why emotions are running high among activists and readers of Escape from Camp 14.
Yet, it is recognized by our courts that victims of abuse do distort details, bury facts, or smudge fine points of testimony, especially when recounting events of childhood abuse. Also accepted by courts is to recognize as evidence testimony that evolves over time.
Michael Kirby, an Australian judge who headed the UN commission of inquiry, validated Mr. Shin's testimony this past weekend, even after these revelations saying, "he's not a fraud. He bears wounds that can be identified and are corroborative of his story of torture."
What's more, Mr. Harden's interview method for the book of first-person testimony and narration is a method subject to creating inaccuracies. Victims suffering trauma are known to render testimony that may depart from certain facts, while still maintaining truth of abuse. Mr. Harden even acknowledged the factual discrepancies in an early chapter of his book. Consider when Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu provided testimony about her experiences during the Guatemalan genocide. David Stohl, an anthropologist, found numerous inaccuracies in small details and sparked a controversy to have Ms. Menchu's story entirely discredited, but to no avail.
Since his escape, Mr. Shin has slowly developed the capacity to feel emotion and process his experience, learning to love and have compassion. With Mr. Shin, some good may have come from hiding his time in Camp 18. According to Mr. Shin's original testimony, escaping from Camp 14 would have forfeit the life of his father who was thought to have been in the camp. By burying the story of his time in Camp 18 to Mr. Harden, Mr. Shin may have kept his father alive, by keeping North Korean agents focused on Camp 14 and away from connections to his father in Camp 18. In October, the regime released a video of his father telling Mr. Shin to come to his senses and back to the embrace of the party.
As this truth unfolds, readers of Escape from Camp 14 may feel deceived, but they should also feel confident that testimonies could evolve over time, and regardless, there is overwhelming evidence of human rights abuse in North Korea. We should worry less about the veracity Mr. Shin's recollection, and instead keep our focus on the constantly changing testimony of the Kim regime. This regime systematically violates human rights, while threatening the rest of the world with nuclear war. We should rise to the challenge Mr. Shin gave graduates of Dalhousie University in 2014: "go to places where there is no love and teach love; go to places where there is no happiness and teach happiness".
People should be careful not to succumb to persecuting an outspoken human rights advocate who has been through an unreal, but so very real nightmare.