What had always puzzled me the most about Shin Dong Hyok’s account of growing up in and escaping from Camp 14 was how someone raised in such isolation from the rules of North Korean society could have had the resources and survival skills to infiltrate all the way from the Taedong River to the Chinese border, and then successfully cross it. How did he replace his prisoner clothing? How did he find money to bribe railroad police and border guards? What did he eat?
In my post on Camp 14, I linked to a video where Shin was asked those questions (see 49 minutes in). I wrote that Shin’s answers didn’t quite satisfy me, but I offered no opinion as to the veracity of his account. Although those questions were never answered to my satisfaction, including in Shin’s book, I had no basis to call him a liar, either. I decided to let the readers judge for themselves.
In one way, Shin’s admission that he lied about growing up in Camp 14 might answer those questions. Shin now says that he was transferred across the river to Camp 18 when he was six. Until its fences were taken down, Camp 18, as horrible a place as it was, was the least brutal of North Korea’s largest camps. In Camp 18, or perhaps in another kind of camp called a kyo-hwa-so, Shin could have acquired the materials and survival skills necessary to infiltrate through the world’s most policed state. That Shin did that much is still beyond serious question. On balance, I still think it’s likely that Shin spent some time in a camp. People I trust have seen the scars on his back, and he has other injuries consistent with torture and child labor.
(Update: in the comments, Curtis points out that North Korea has unintentionally acknowledged that Shin was in Camp 18 as a child. Thanks to Curtis, as always, for his exceptional detective work.)
But none of that means we should ever trust Shin again. 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.
What troubles me most about Shin’s admission won’t be Pyongyang’s crowings, or those of North Korea’s noisy sympathizers — the tendentious and unreadable Marxist academics, the cleverer ones who argue from ignorance, the mendacious profiteers, or the combustible know-nothings — although that’s something we can all look forward to. Smart and fair-minded people will continue to ignore these people, because they can see that the weight of the witness testimony and satellite imagery is still overwhelming. Shin isn’t the only witness from Camp 14, and his admissions don’t alter our understanding of the other camps in the slightest. Indeed, Shin’s account gained the prominence it did because it was an outlier.
Of course, not all people are smart or fair-minded, and the world’s more simplistic thinkers will conclude from this that all of the survivors are liars. Many of them already wanted to conclude as much.
As much as this troubles me, what troubles me much more is how much this admission will hurt the kind-hearted people I know and call my friends, who embraced Shin as a son or a brother. At this moment, they’re the ones whose pain I feel the most. Shin the man, the friend, the adopted son and brother, can be forgiven, but Shin the activist can’t be. And no matter how much of his account you’re still willing to accept as true, those he has hurt the most are the millions of North Koreans, including thousands of camp inmates, who remain in North Korea, and who might yet be saved if the world unites to act on their behalf.
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Update: To put a finer point on it, Shin is one of 25,000 refugees to come out of North Korea, including dozens who have described crimes against humanity in multiple prison camps. 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. The press accounts suggest that it was some of those other witnesses who forced Shin to come clean. Good for them.
That doesn’t get Shin off the hook for lying to us, but it doesn’t get Kim Jong Un off the hook, either.
Update 2: Drop whatever you’re doing and read Curtis’s post on this. The splitting irony of it is that the North Koreans have actually done an excellent job of corroborating Shin’s new story — that he grew up in another camp, just not the same one he’d originally claimed. Had the North Koreans said nothing at all, I wouldn’t know what to believe. They probably didn’t count on Curtis’s extraordinary, encyclopedic knowledge of every second- and third-level administrative district in North Korea, or his ability to explain the significance of what Shin’s father said in the video it released, or to spot the inconsistencies that suggest that he was coached. But as I’ve said so many times before, never underestimate Curtis.
Update 3, Jan. 20, 2015:
Michael Kirby, chairman of the Commission of Inquiry into North Korea, said that Shin’s testimony consisted of only two paragraphs in the 400-page report and that he was only one of hundreds of North Korean witnesses.
“It’s a very small part of a very long story. And it really doesn’t affect the credibility of the testimony, which is online,” he said. “Lots of people took part (in) this inquiry. Their stories are powerful and convincing, and these stories do not only represent Shin but other people in North Korea.”
In a reversal of his story told for years, Shin told Harden on Friday that he had been transferred to another prison, Camp 18, when he was 6, instead of spending his entire life inside North Korea at the total control zone Camp 14, the author says on his website.
The distinction of whether Shin was imprisoned in Camp 14 or 18 was not a deal breaker for Kirby.
“It seems as if the issue is whether he was in the total control zone, or whether he was in an ordinary prison camp. In another words, it’s whether triple horror or double horror,” Kirby said. [CNN]