TOKYO — Shin Dong-hyuk, whose horrific tales of life in a “total control” prison camp made him the most well-known escapee from North Korea, changed and omitted parts of his story because they were “too painful” to fully retell, according to a revised account of his life.
In a new foreword to “Escape From Camp 14,” the best-selling book about Shin’s life in and flight from North Korea, author Blaine Harden writes that Shin had formulated “a sanitized version” of his story and largely stuck to it for nine years after his 2005 escape.
“Trauma experts see nothing unusual in this. What is unusual is that his story made him an international celebrity,” Harden writes in the new foreword, which is being added to the e-book and will be printed in future editions of the paperback.
The main text of the book will remain unchanged, however, and what Shin now acknowledges as inaccuracies in his story will not be fixed. And Harden acknowledges that even the new disclosures in the revised foreword may not reveal the whole truth.
Shin’s original telling of his story, as recounted in the book — that he was born in Camp 14, the most draconian of North Korea’s political prison camps, and endured a life of unimaginable suffering there — had been vetted by South Korean and American intelligence officials as well as experts on the camps.
It helped compel the international community to act on North Korea’s human rights violations, which had for years been a distant second priority behind the state’s nuclear weapons program.
Shin was a star witness during a U.N. commission of inquiry, which last year produced a groundbreaking report that has led to calls for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other top officials to be charged with crimes against humanity.
Pyongyang, alarmed at the prospect of seeing its “supreme leader” summoned before an international tribunal, started a campaign to discredit Shin, releasing two videos late last year in which Shin’s father, long thought dead, denied they had ever lived in a prison camp.
Although the videos confirmed some aspects of Shin’s story — the place where his father said they lived was within the bounds of a known camp — it also emboldened defectors in South Korea who had doubts about Shin’s version of events to speak out.
On being questioned in January about the rumors circulating in Seoul, Shin admitted to Harden, a former Washington Post correspondent who initially wrote about Shin for this newspaper, that he had changed his story.
The major changes were that Shin had in fact spent most of his childhood in Camp 18, a slightly less brutal prison camp bordering Camp 14, and that a torture session he said happened when he was a teenager actually occurred when he was 20, as punishment for a previously undisclosed escape to China.
In the new foreword, based on two weeks of reporting in Seoul, Harden writes that the changes do not alter the fact that Shin was tortured, as evidenced by the scars on his body, which have been examined by doctors and found to be consistent with the torture he described.
In fact, Shin now says he was tortured more extensively than he had previously admitted.
“In addition to being burned over a fire and hung by shackles from his ankles, which he had earlier described, he said guards used pliers to rip out his fingernails. Scars on his hands and the partial amputation of one finger support the claim,” Harden writes.
Shin buried those memories for nearly a decade because the experience had been physically and psychologically unbearable, he told Harden.
Some of the new details help explain parts of the story that experts had long found questionable — how, for instance, a person who had never been outside a total-control camp was able to make his way to China. Shin now says that he was able to do it because he had in fact lived in the slightly more open Camp 18 and had traveled across the border before.
Harden said that in their conversations last month, Shin was less secretive and more talkative than he had ever been during long rounds of interviews for the book. “He seemed relieved to be correcting a story he felt had become a kind of prison,” the author writes.
Still, Harden continues to harbor doubts, just as he did in the first telling of Shin’s story.
“Shin told me he is now determined to tell the truth,” he wrote in the foreword. “Regrettably, he has told me this before. It seems prudent to expect more revisions.”
North Korea seized upon Shin’s admissions in January to try to discredit him and the other 200-plus witnesses who gave testimony to the U.N. commission, but the changes have also caused great consternation among North Korean defectors living in South Korea.
Some have called for understanding, saying that Shin is a traumatized human being whose reasons for changing his story are not malicious. Others have accused him of exaggerating the details to win celebrity.
Some human rights activists have voiced concern that the changes might stall the unprecedented efforts to hold North Korea to account.
Michael Kirby and Marzuki Darusman, members of the U.N. commission of inquiry, have said in interviews that the changes in Shin’s story do not alter the overwhelming body of evidence from several hundred survivors of the North Korean system, nor do they alter the need to hold North Korea’s leaders to account.
In the new foreword, Harden writes about how a powerful story about one individual can change public perception — citing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a short novel based on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s eight years in a Soviet gulag.
“Shin, of course, is no Solzhenitsyn. He is not a poet, a journalist, or a historian,” Harden writes. “Raised in a dysfunctional family in a secret prison, badly educated, and tortured, he is a flawed eyewitness to the savagery of the world’s last totalitarian state. As he has often said of himself, he is an ‘animal’ slowly learning how to be a human being.”
It is not Shin’s fault he became globally famous during that learning process, Harden continues.
As such, “Escape from Camp 14” should now be read as a story based on one young man’s memory, “as refracted through a collapsed scheme to hide from trauma, torture, and shame,” Harden writes.
Shin did not respond Sunday to a request for comment. His only statement on the changes came in a Facebook post in January in which he apologized and urged his supporters to continue publicizing the “horrendous and unspeakable horrors that are taking place” in the totalitarian state.
Penguin, the book’s publisher, declined to comment beyond confirming that the new foreword would be attached to the e-book and future printings. Through its imprint Fig Tree, Penguin is due to this year publish a memoir by Park Yeon-mi, a 21-year-old North Korean defector, written with Maryanne Vollers, who collaborated with Hillary Clinton on her memoir “Living History.” Since the Shin admission in January, there has been increased scrutiny of Park, who also has a high public profile, in part because she speaks English.