But human rights advocates say Shin is just one of hundreds of defectors from North Korea who have together painted a collective picture of brutal treatment at the hands of the regime.
“Just because there are clouds, it doesn’t mean there is no sun,” said Kim Seung-chul, a defector who started North Korea Reform Radio to try to get information into the tightly sealed state. “Maybe Shin exaggerated some details, but that doesn’t change the reality that terrible human rights violations are being committed in North Korea.”
North Korea is trying to argue otherwise.
Calling Shin “human garbage,” Uriminzokkiri, a semi-official Web site with close ties to the North Korean regime, said that it wasn’t just “parts” of Shin’s story that were wrong but that all of it was “lies and based on fabrication.”
His admission of inaccuracies showed that the human rights push and new sanctions from the United States were a “serious insult to us and a deception of the international community,” said Uriminzokkiri, which acts as a mouthpiece for the regime.
Shin, thought to be the only person to ever escape from one of North Korea’s “total control” prison camps, had become the star of the human rights movement. He gave speeches at the Waldorf Astoria and was featured on “60 Minutes”; he received awards and appeared alongside former president George W. Bush.
So his admission last week that he had spent most of his childhood at Camp 18 — not at Camp 14, known as the most brutal — and that he had escaped twice before his final breakout undermined large parts of his narrative and sent shockwaves through the community of activists pushing for change.
“There will definitely be an impact on the North Korean human rights movement because our movement has been tarnished,” said Jung Gwang-il, who spent three years in North Korea’s Yodeok prison camp and now heads No Chain, a group for North Korean political victims.
“We feel discouraged by this, but it’s not going to stop us from speaking out about political prisons in North Korea. This doesn’t change the reality of human rights violations in North Korea,” Jung said.
Michael Kirby, the Australian judge who led a groundbreaking U.N. commission of inquiry into North Korea’s human rights abuses, agreed, calling Shin’s revisions “trivial.”
“This is a traumatized person, and the fact that he misstated some things is not at all surprising,” Kirby said in a phone interview. “This is one witness out of 300 — his name is in the report only a couple of times — and North Korea should not get away with riding on the back of this disproportionate coverage,” he said, criticizing the media attention to Shin’s revisions.
But Shin’s admission came as the push to hold North Korea’s leaders accountable for crimes against humanity, after years when human rights took a back seat to nuclear issues, was gaining unprecedented momentum.
A resolution to refer Kim Jong Un and his cronies to the International Criminal Court, sparked by the U.N. commission’s report, is on the agenda at the Security Council.
Winning approval there has always been expected to be a hard sell, given that China and Russia, two allies of North Korea, are veto-wielding permanent members.
Still, the efforts have clearly alarmed the North Korean regime, which has in recent months started to engage on human rights, issuing its own “human rights report” and sending representatives to hearings.
Now, many of those who have been behind the push have suddenly gone to ground, apparently awaiting the full story from Shin, who arrived back in Seoul from abroad Monday.
Privately, many activists and analysts in Seoul are saying they had doubts about Shin’s story from the outset, in particular questioning how someone who had no concept of money could have stolen and traded his way through North Korea and into China.
But part of the reason Shin became the star of the movement was that his story was so horrifying. Born into a camp and expected to die there, he said he never received affection from his mother, who viewed him as a rival for scarce food.
He said he betrayed his mother and brother’s plan to escape, was forced to watch their subsequent executions, and was tortured by being suspended over a fire. Shin now says these events did happen, just at different times and places than in his previous tellings.
Analysts say this is partly a result of the intense interest in North Korea and a willingness to believe almost any story that comes out of a state held together by a personality cult. Tales of the banality of life there — the everyday hunger and repression — don’t capture that interest. That means defectors, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after their lives in, and harrowing escapes from, North Korea, embellish their stories to make them more sensational.
A variation of this appears to have happened in Shin’s case, said Ahn Myong-chol, a former North Korean prison guard who is close to Shin, describing how local journalists reported his story once he arrived in South Korea. The Washington Post also carried an article based on an interview with him in 2008.
“The media hasn’t given him a chance to tell his story,” Ahn said, explaining that local journalists set Shin’s narrative in stone before he realized what was going on.
“He is not a celebrity, he is an uneducated defector,” Ahn said. “It was just a matter of time until all this came out.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.