TOKYO — Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean prison camp survivor who has become the symbol of human rights injustices suffered in that country, has changed key parts of the story of his ordeal.
Although the most horrific details, such as being lowered by a hook over a fire, still stand, Shin has admitted that many of the places and timing of events in his telling of his story were wrong, Blaine Harden, the author of “Escape from Camp 14,” a best-selling book about Shin’s life, said Saturday.
“From a human rights perspective, he was still brutally tortured, but he moved things around,” said Harden, a former Washington Post journalist who first wrote Shin’s story for The Post in 2008.
Shin, 32, has been one of the most prominent defectors from North Korea, trying to raise awareness about human rights abuses there. He also testified in front of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, whose report has led to an international campaign to hold the totalitarian state’s leaders to account for decades of human rights violations.
North Korea, alarmed by this campaign and the prospect of “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong Un being indicted, has been trying to undermine Shin’s testimony and will doubtless seize on these revisions to try to portray all accounts of human rights abuses as fabrications.
In “Escape from Camp 14” and in his testimony to the U.N. commission, Shin has told this story: He was born in Camp 14, a sprawling high-security political prison in the mountains of north of Pyongyang, where he was brutally tortured and lived until his escape in 2005. He has consistently said that he escaped with a fellow inmate, climbing over his body when the man was electrocuted on the fence that surrounded the camp, and then made his way into China.
Shin admitted to Harden on Friday that when he was about 6, he, his mother and his brother were transferred to another prison camp, Camp 18, across the Taedong River from Camp 14.
It was there, after learning of his mother and brother’s plans to escape, that he betrayed them to the authorities, Shin told Harden. It was also in this camp, he said, that he witnessed their executions.
In the book, Shin recounted all these events as happening in Camp 14.
Shin also now says that he escaped from the camps on two occasions, in 1999 and 2001. The second time, he made it to China but was caught after four months by local police and sent back to North Korea. He was first held at Camp 18, then transferred back to the more draconian Camp 14, Shin told Harden.
It was then, when he was 20, that Shin was tortured as punishment for escaping. He was held in an underground prison for six months, where he was repeatedly burned and tortured. This diverges from his original account that this torture happened when he was 13, when authorities suspected him of also plotting to escape with his mother and brother.
Shin, who lives in Seoul, is traveling abroad and did not answer phone calls or e-mails requesting comment. But he had spoken to Harden and said he was “very sorry about all this mess.”
“When I agreed to share my experience for the book, I found it was too painful to think about some of the things that happened,” Harden quoted Shin as saying. “So I made a compromise in my mind. I altered some details that I thought wouldn’t matter. I didn’t want to tell exactly what happened in order not to relive these painful moments all over again.”
North Korea is the most secretive state on Earth, and it is notoriously difficult to verify details of defectors’ testimony. Harden notes in his book that this is especially the case when it comes to political prison camps, which are off-limits to outsiders.
But experts on North Korea’s gulags vetted and accepted Shin’s story, and human rights activists said that the revisions did not alter the fundamental truth of the horrors of North Korean prison camps.
“Camp 14, Camp 18, Auschwitz, Dachau, Birkenau — what difference does it make?” asked Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “He is a political prison camp survivor, period.”
The revisions did not change the key parts of Shin’s testimony, or that of the entire movement of defectors agitating for action against North Korea.
“The critical points of the book remain true,” Scarlatoiu said. “This young man went through despicable torture. That is true.”
Harden said he would seek to correct his book, which has been translated into 27 languages since it was first published in 2012. He and Shin have been sharing the profits from the book equally.
But he said he was convinced that key elements remain correct.
“I’m confident that he was tortured because he has the scars,” Harden said, describing the burn marks on Shin’s lower back. “And I’m confident that he escaped from Camp 14 because of the scars on his legs. He was examined by medical experts who said they are consistent with severe electrical burns.”
Shin also has bowed arms, the result of a childhood of hard labor.
“He is still saying that all of this happened, but that they happened at different times and places,” Harden said.
Leeann Roybal, Shin’s wife, said that Shin was “very emotional” about the revisions and recognizes that North Korea probably will try to exploit them.
“He thinks about this a lot,” Roybal said from Seoul. “He knows this is going to have a catastrophic impact on a lot of people’s lives.”
North Korea has already tried to dismiss Shin’s story and assassinate his character. Last fall, amid mounting calls to refer North Korea’s leaders to the International Criminal Court, the regime released a video titled “Lie and Truth,” in which Shin’s father says that his son never lived in a political prison camp and that his testimony is false.