mobile-bannertablet-bannerdesktop-banner
Shin Dong-hyuk
North Korean human-rights activist Shin Dong-hyuk delivers remarks during an event on human rights in North Korea at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, in New York City, on Sept. 23, 2014  Jason DeCrow—AP

North Korean Camp Survivor Admits He Was Not Straight About His Story

Jan 19, 2015

When Shin Dong-hyuk's life story was published in 2012, CNN hailed it as a "true North Korea survival story." Born in a notorious North Korean prison complex, Shin endured almost unimaginable deprivation and torture before breaking out, crawling under an electrified fence, and over the body of a fellow prisoner, to flee. The account, Escape From Camp 14, by journalist Blaine Harden, became a New York Times best seller, helping to call global attention to the country's egregious rights abuses.

Trouble is, it was not all true.

On Friday Jan. 16, Shin told Harden a revised version of the story. While he was born at Camp 14, he spent part of his youth at another complex, Camp 18, escaping twice before landing back at the first camp, he now says. And it was at Camp 18, not at Camp 14, that he betrayed his mother and brother, sharing their plan to escape, and then witnessing their executions. This and other new details came to light after fellow defectors raised questions about the tale. The new timeline, first published by the Washington Post, has yet to be confirmed.

Take an Inside Look at North Korea

Aug. 26, 2011. A North Korean woman looks down at the city of Pyongyang from the top of the Tower of the Juche Idea.
Aug. 26, 2011. A North Korean woman looks down at the city of Pyongyang from the top of the Tower of the Juche Idea.David Guttenfelder—AP
Aug. 26, 2011. A North Korean woman looks down at the city of Pyongyang from the top of the Tower of the Juche Idea.
Journey into North Korea
North Korea
NORTH KOREA
APTOPIX NORTH KOREA
North Korea
North Korea Daily Life
APTOPIX North Korea Kim Il Sung Birthday
North Korea
North Korea Building On the Past
North Korea Daily Life
APTOPIX North Korea Daily Life
North Korea Kim Jong Il Making the Myth
Journey into North Korea
Journey into North Korea
North Korea Kim Jong Il Making the Myth
YE North Korea
North Korea Rocket Launch
North Korea Kim Il Sung Birthday
North Korea Mount Paektu
APTOPIX North Korea Mount Paektu
North Korea Mount Paektu
North Korea
North Korea Feeding the People
APTOPIX North Korea
APTOPIX North Korea Hunger
APTOPIX North Korea
APTOPIX North Korea
Journey into North Korea
North Korea Mobile Phones
North Korea Daily Life
North Korea NY Philharmonic
APTOPIX North Korea NY Philharmonic
APTOPIX North Korea
North Korea in Autumn
Journey into North Korea
Sept. 16, 2008. A guide gives a lecture in front of a diorama showing the Korean War's 1950 battle of Taejon as she gives a tour of the War Museum in Pyongyang.
North Korea
APTOPIX North Korea Venerating Kim
North Korea
North Korea Lost in Pyongyang
North Korea
APTOPIX North Korea Rocket Launch
APTOPIX North Korea
APTOPIX North Korea
North Korea
APTOPIX North Korea
APTOPIX North Korea
North Korea
North Korea
North Korea Portraits
North Korea Daily Life
North Korea Daily Life
North Korea Forgotten Cities
APTOPIX North Korea Daily Life
North Korea Forgotten Cities
North Korea Daily Life
APTOPIX North Korea Daily Life
North Korea Daily Life
APTOPIX North Korea Daily Life
APTOPIX North Korea
North Korea
North Korea Daily Life
APTOPIX North Korea
North Korea Pyongyang Marathon
APTOPIX North Korea Koreas Tension
North Korea
North Korea
APTOPIX North Korea Daily Life
North Korea Daily Life
APTOPIX North Korea Daily Life
North Korea Military
APTOPIX North Korea Military
Aug. 26, 2011. A North Korean woman looks down at the city of Pyongyang from the top of the Tower of the Juche Idea.
David Guttenfelder—AP
1 of 73

“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,” Shin told Harden. “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.” Shin also said in a Facebook page that he did not realize that the extent to which these details mattered, and asked forgiveness.

The details, of course, do matter. As one of the most high-profile survivors of North Korea's political prisons, Shin has done more than most to raise awareness about the camps and the people who suffer there. Doubts about his credibility as a witness — and hence his credibility as a spokesperson — may make people less likely to believe other survivor testimony.

In weighing the revelations, though, it's worth keeping three things in mind. First, we don't yet know the full story. In his Facebook post, Shin said he would not be speaking further on the matter. The author, Harden, says he and his publishers will work to find out what really happened and to amend the book. Until they release more details, or others are able to corroborate Shin's revised story, there will be gaps. The bulk of the story may — or may not — be true.

Second, it is worth considering why survivors of trauma might provide inconsistent or incorrect testimony. As Shin himself says in his Facebook note, recounting torture can be traumatic, especially when it involves the suffering of family members or friends. And Shin's story is based on childhood and teenage memories of profound suffering and abuse.

Indeed, those who work with North Korean refugees note that obscuring details and withholding information can be a sort of survival strategy. "North Korean refugees can face more challenges than other refugees because they are acutely aware that what they say may affect people back in North Korea," says Sokeel Park, d irector of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, an NGO that works with North Koreans. "They still feel tied because their relatives, or the people who helped them escape, are there."

Third, and perhaps most important, with or without Shin's testimony, there is a wide body of evidence that the prison camps exist — and are absolutely brutal. A U.N. investigation into the country's rights abuses includes testimony from 80 witnesses, and was also based on accounts by 240 others who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "The basic knowledge on how serious this is does not hinge on the details of one person’s story," says Park.

That's the same message Shin sent out before stepping away from the spotlight for a while. "Instead of me, you all can still fight," he wrote. "The world still needs to know of the horrendous and unspeakable horrors that are taking place."

And that, no doubt, is true.

PHOTOS: This is how North Korea's government wants you to see Kim Jong Un

KCNA picture shows North Korean leader Kim and his wife Ri during a visit to Unit 1017 of KPA Air and Anti-Air Force
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (3rd L) and his wife Ri Sol-ju (2nd L) look on during a visit to Unit 1017 of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Air and Anti-Air Force, honoured with the title of O Jung Hup-led 7th Regiment, in this undated picture released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on June 21, 2013.KCNA—REUTERS
KCNA picture shows North Korean leader Kim and his wife Ri during a visit to Unit 1017 of KPA Air and Anti-Air Force
NKOREA-POLITICS-KIM
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits Mangyongdae Revolutionary School
KCNA handout shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looking through a pair of binoculars during inspection of Hwa Islet Defence Detachment off east coast of Korean peninsula
NKOREA-HOSPITAL-CHILDREN
NKOREA-KIM
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smokes a cigarette as he gives guidance on the development of Ssuk Islet
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a construction site of a resort for scientists
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un sits in a wooden boat with other soldiers as he visits military units on islands in the most southwest of Pyongyang
North Korea :  Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the newly built ski resort in the Masik Pass region
NK rocket firing drill
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (3rd L) and his wife Ri Sol-ju (2nd L) look on during a visit to Unit 1017 of the Korean
... VIEW MORE

KCNA—REUTERS
1 of 12
All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.