The foreword begins, “Early in 2015, Shin Dong-hyuk changed his story.” Shin had become a world-famous witness to the atrocities in the North Korean labor camps; he’d appeared on television, and his testimony had launched an inquiry into North Korea’s war crimes. And yet, as Shin explained to Blaine Harden, the author of Escape From Camp 14, some of what he said was a lie. This foreword represents Harden’s attempt to clarify the truth about Shin.
The new foreword to Escape From Camp 14 challenges much of the information in the book that follows. As it stands, Blaine Harden has republished without actually rewriting the book itself; instead, he’s just added this foreword to the most recent edition to acknowledge the distortions and inconsistencies in Shin’s testimony. One day Harden may revise Escape From Camp 14, but for now readers will have to rely on this foreword, and interpret the rest of the book in light of the information it reveals.
Shin had already recanted some of what he’d told Harden about his mother and brother’s deaths, explaining that he was responsible for informing on them. In 2015, he recanted more. While Shin’s behavior has angered other camp survivors—they claim he’s undermining the human rights movement by making survivors seem untrustworthy—it’s important to recall that Shin has been scarred by his past. Many trauma victims struggle with the truth, and the stories they tell are often shields behind which they hide. In the original edition of Escape From Camp 14, Harden acknowledged that Shin was unreliable, but he says that he should have done more to question Shin’s relationship to the truth.
Shin’s behavior might seem thoroughly untrustworthy: after all, he lied about his experiences not once or twice, but hundreds of times. However, Harden encourages readers to remember that Shin is a survivor of mind-boggling trauma, meaning that it would also be strange if Shin hadn’t had to alter some details of his story. Too often, people assume that it’s easy for people to talk about their traumatic pasts—instead, Harden suggests, readers should be more sensitive to Shin’s pain and guilt. (Although he also acknowledges his own role in making Shin’s untruths as widely spread as they were.)
According to Shin’s new version of the truth, he escaped to China not once but twice, and lived in two different prison camps, Camp 14 and Camp 18. Originally, he claimed that he grew up surrounded by children and adults whose only destiny was to be worked to death. However, when Shin was young, Camp 18 absorbed Camp 14 into its limits; afterwards, “his status improved marginally.” He was allowed to see photographs of Kim Jong Il, and some of his peers were released from prison.
Previously, Shin seems to have exaggerated the squalor of his prison conditions—for example, he gave the impression that he and his peers were going to be worked to death. Now, it would appear that some of Shin’s peers were actually released from prison. But of course, this doesn’t mean that life was easy in Camp 18—even if it was easier than Shin originally described.
Shin claimed that his finger had been chopped off as punishment for breaking a sewing machine. Now, he claims that he lost the finger after the guards tortured him. He concealed the truth, he claims, because he was ashamed of being “broken” by torture. He also revealed that he’d signed a police statement saying that he’d witnessed his mother and brother commit a murder—a statement that was critical in his family’s executions. Shin also lived with his father as a teenager, contrary to what he’d claimed, and he was tortured at the age of twenty-one, not fourteen, as he’d originally said. But Shin’s distortions of the truth are nothing unusual for trauma victims, Harden says. The problem is that Shin isn’t just a trauma victim: he’s also an international celebrity.
Many trauma victims repress or deny violent episodes from their past. Shin is no exception: he refused to tell people about being tortured and being “broken.” It’s very hard to understand why Shin changed certain aspects of his story—for example, why he felt the need to lie about living with his father for so long. But perhaps readers shouldn’t expect for Shin’s traumatic past to be completely comprehensible; some details of his life are beyond ordinary understanding.
The North Korean government released propaganda videos in 2014, calling Shin a “parasite.” The videos claimed that Shin had been involved in his family member’s murders and that he’d tried to escape to China twice. They also accused Shin of having raped a young girl—an accusation that Shin denies. In one video, Shin’s father, Shin Gyung Sub, claimed that neither he nor his son ever lived in a prison camp, and that Shin had acquired his scars and burns because of a childhood accident. However, even North Korean records support Shin’s claim that he was born in Camp 14 and became a resident of Camp 18 around 1984.
The propaganda videos raise the possibility that Shin wasn’t raised in a prison camp at all. While Shin clearly isn’t an entirely reliable source of information, it also seems absurd to trust North Korean propaganda over Shin, especially since Shin’s body itself testifies to the torture that he endured year after year. Even if Shin lied about which prison camp he was in, it’s clear enough that he lived in miserable conditions and was severely beaten and abused for an extended period of time.
Shin initially told Harden that he’d spent time in Shanghai before arriving in South Korea in 2006. He told many different people, including human rights activists, counselors, and journalists, the same story about his time in Camp 14. The only significant change to the story he told Harden was about his role in his mother and brother’s deaths. But then, in 2014, after the videos, Shin divulged more information, including the fact that he’d lived in Camp 18. This infuriated Kim Hye Sook, another camp survivor who lived in Camp 18. Kim had long suspected that Shin wasn’t telling the truth about himself.
It’s possible to sympathize with Kim Hye Sook’s point: by waffling and distorting the truth about his life, Shin is making the anti-prison camp movement seem untrustworthy. Shin shouldn’t necessarily be expected to tell the whole truth about his time in prison camp, but he also elected to become a spokesperson for the activist movement, a role for which honesty is essential. In general, Shin’s role in becoming a celebrity is a little more active than Harden gives him credit for.
Shin now claims he escaped from Camp 18 twice, once in 1999 and once in 2000, crawling out through the electric fence. The first time Shin escaped, it was his father’s idea; his father told him to make his way to his aunt. Two weeks later, the guards captured Shin and sent him back to camp, where he did forced labor. A year later, Shin escaped again, this time making it to China. In China, Shin was arrested and sent back to North Korea, where he was moved back to Camp 18. He was then moved to a torture facility in Camp 14 for the next six months. He was released and then sent to work on a farm.
This information significantly alters the plot structure of Escape From Camp 14; in the future, one imagines that Harden will re-write his book accordingly (though we also might wonder why he republished at all with only this forward added and no major changes to the book itself). Again, the fact that Shin lied about having escaped from camp before does call into question the rest of his story (and the fact that he was allowed to live after escaping from camp the first time suggests that, perhaps, conditions in the prison camp weren’t as deadly as Shin initially claimed, even if they were still miserable).
Shin has demonstrated his knowledge of Camp 14 many times, suggesting that he really did live there. However, he’s changed many details of his escape. He now says he escaped because he was told he was going to be executed soon. This has raised much suspicion: as Kim Hye Sook points out, it seems unlikely that Shin could have made it all the way to China without arousing any suspicion, considering that he was already under suspicion. Shin merely claims that he “knew how to travel anonymously … because he had done it before.”
It seems unlikely that Shin could have escaped from prison a third time and then made his way into China, especially if he was about to be executed (wouldn’t the guards have been expecting him to run?) But even if Shin isn’t trustworthy about some details of the prison camps, his overall point is sound: North Korean prison camps need to be shut down.
Shin could play a major role in bringing the world’s attention to the suffering and human rights abuses in the North Korean prison camps, Harden says. And while he’s changed some parts of his story, that’s not necessarily his fault—many traumatized people do the same thing. Harden declares that people should still read Shin’s story and understand what his experiences say about “the depravity that North Korean continues to deny.”
Harden argues that Shin could become a spokesperson for the anti-prison camp movement. One problem with his argument, however, is that human rights spokespeople need to be honest and forthcoming about their pasts—otherwise, they threaten to discredit their cause. There should be no expectation that Shin be a public figure and speak out against North Korea (he has every right to be a private person), but if Shin acts as a public figure in the movement, it’s of the utmost importance that he tell the truth. However, this doesn’t mean that readers shouldn’t also be sympathetic to Shin’s situation and understand that traumatized people sometimes change the truth to maintain their self-worth and sanity.