Shin Dong-hyuk’s Truth
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Before too much of a megillah is made of the recantation by the North Korean escapee Shin Dong-hyuk, let us mark a central point. He may have changed some details of his early life, as it was recounted in the best-selling book of his travail, “Escape From Camp 14.” None of this diminishes the fact that North Korea is home to the most repressive regime on earth — and has been since Kim Il-sung founded the Democratic People’s Republic in 1947. Nor does it change the essential truth of Mr. Shin’s own suffering in the North Korean gulag. Mr. Shin, for all the physical and emotional scars with which he emerged from his epic, remains a brave and important figure.
News that he has backed off some details in his account was fronted this morning by the New York Times, after the story was broken by the Washington Post report. It turns out, in the revised account, that it was but partly true Mr. Shin and his family had been incarcerated at a prison where life sentences are served. He actually served most of his time in Camp 18, from which parole was possible. Also, Mr. Shin was quoted by the Times as saying that the torture he endured as a teenager, “instead happened years later and was meted out for very different reasons.” The Times reports that “activists worry that Mr. Shin’s recanting will help China and other North Korea supporters fight against opening a court case.”
The thing to keep in mind, we are told by Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of another important work, “Escape From North Korea,” is that a United Nations Commission of Inquiry conducted a yearlong investigation of North Korea’s human rights abuses. It interviewed nearly 300 witnesses, of which Mr. Shin was but one. The U.N. report makes clear that there is no doubt that the prison camps exist and that inmates are starved and brutalized in the ways that Mr. Shin described to Blaine Harden, who actually wrote the bestseller about Mr. Shin’s escape from Camp 14. “The horror of life in North Korea’s prison camps is not in question,” Ms. Kirkpatrick stresses.
Mr. Harden’s reporting makes this clear. Mr. Shin is “stunted by malnutrition,” he writes. “His arms are bowed from childhood labor. His lower back and buttocks are scarred with burns from the torturer’s fire. The skin over his pubis bears a puncture scar from the hook used to hold him in place over the fire. His ankles are scarred by shackles, from which he was hung upside down in solitary confinement. His right middle finger is cut off at the first knuckle, a guard’s punishment for dropping a sewing machine in a camp garment factory. His shins, from ankle to knee on both legs, are mutilated and scarred by burns from the electrified barbed-wire fence that failed to keep him inside.”
One of the traumas of Mr. Shin’s life is that the watched his mother and brother executed in a North Korean camp and has been living, since the book came out, with threats against his own life. In October, the North Korean regime found his father — still living in a camp – and made a video of him that Mr. Shin has said tormented him. According to the Times, Mr. Shin’s “confession” is rattling other prison camp survivors, who worry that it could “stall an already difficult campaign by the United States and other nations to get the Security Council to push for an investigation at the International Criminal Court.” We’d like to think Mr. Shin’s plight will be thrown into only ever sharper relief, given how many other cases confirm the central element of North Korean barbarity.