I told myself that I wasn’t going to write anything about Shin Dong-hyuk and his confession that key elements of his escape narrative were omitted, changed around or left out. I have never met Shin and I’ve never been able to vouch for the veracity of his book. I have talked about his book in public, however, and have always maintained that I did not doubt his story. Altough I could not verify the details, I believed its general structure to be valid.
I still do. There are too many stories like that of Shin to not believe that North Korea has concentration camps in which the inmates suffer without parallel.
I have been following the news surrounding Shin’s startling confession closely. It is all but certain that Shin will be lionized by those who think that the human rights abuses in North Korea are greatly exaggerated and that “the US/Europe/[fill in your favorite imperialist oppressor here] also have blood on their hands.” I have little time and less patience to go into the inhumane and immoral (amoral?) stupidity of the concentration camp deniers here, but feast they will. The cadaver of the most famous NK defector is still warm after all and jackals need to eat. They will need their strength to go after other prominent NK exiles. I have already been told to disengage myself from those prominent NK exiles I know personally, or I will suffer the consequences too.
Let’s leave the jackals to what jackals do (running in a pack, following the leader, eating prey killed by others). It’s not them I’m disappointed in (my expectations are so low as to be almost negative). It’s you I’m disappointed in. Yes, you, my imagined reader who thinks a lot like I do. We may disagree sometimes, but in general we agree. And when we disagree we have a fierce but honest debate about it. Why am I disappointed? Two things.
Thing number one: whatever Shin is, it seems beyond reasonable doubt that he is a concentration camp escapee. He was tortured, he suffered tremendous trauma. And we still hold him accountable to standards of generally accepted behavior? Methinks there is something wrong here. His experiences are anything but average, general, ordinary, run-off-the-mill. If we want to blame anyone for his fictionalized narrative, it is ourselves. How could we possibly have expected someone who has gone through so much to behave like we do we expect one another to behave? Shin admits himself that he is not a fully formed human being. Now I am not sure whether that is the case (it’s a bloody hard thing to say about anyone), but I am pretty sure that his experiences have primed him for a different kind of life than the one he came to lead after his arrival in South Korea. It is a miracle that he functioned so well to begin with. So when Joshua Stanton says to “forgive Shin Dong Hyok the man, but not Shin Dong Hyok the activist” I understand his sentiments, but I also disagree. There is nothing to forgive. We cannot and should not forgive Shin for anything. It is not for us to forgive. If Shin turns out to be a con artist who never saw the inside of a camp, who never was tortured, who never saw his family or friends die, then it is something else (but as the DPRK has unintentionally admitted he was in Camp 18, this is not probable). But as a concentration camp survivor, for me Shin can say anything he thinks he should say about his experiences. It’s up to us to relate that to our non-traumatized and much less personal perception of North Korea and its camps. To distinguish ‘facts’ from ‘fiction.’ Which we have to do, because that is the language of the UN and of the ICC. But not necessarily the language of someone who lived through it. However inconvenient Shin publicly changing his narrative may be for for example the UN Commission of Inquiry, this is what structurally being abused by a state does to you. This is the reality of North Korean human rights abuses. They’ll live on long after the camps have gone. We really should know this. It’s not like we in our societies lack this historical experience, even if most of us lack the personal experience.
Thing number two: I am not so naive that I think that what I wrote above will be considered acceptable. Shin will be criticized to differing degrees by different people, packs of jackals will tear at his flesh. But the implications this has for other North Korean exiles is something I worry about. Very much indeed. Before you know it, NK exiles will be forcefully demanded to distance themselves from Shin and his assertions. If they refrain from doing so, they will be tainted by his lies and share in the suspicion reserved for the likes of him, it will be said. Does this sound familiar? It should. It is what happened to many a Muslim believer after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Distance yourself from those we perceive as similar to you or else. The argument is as invalid and as powerful for Muslims as it is for NK exiles. You share in the blame by virtue of being identified with someone else. Note that that’s a passive form there. It is there for a reason: to signify that the subject has nothing to say about what is happening to him or her. Funny enough, the above mechanism only ever applies to minorities. Despite the fact that I can think of many wrongdoers with whom I share a trait or two I have not noticed any reduction in trust in my work because another Dutch professor fabricated his research data. I have not been held accountable for the sins of my ancestors who exploited their overseas colonies. And so forth, and so on. If other NK exiles are now less trusted, I should also be less trusted because there have been people in my position who fabricated their data and research (and didn’t have Shin’s trauma). You’re still reading this? Good, so you still trust me (to an extent, I know). So don’t transfer your disappointment in Shin to other NK exiles. It’s facile and it is wrong.
And just to leave you with some food for thought. Shin’s confession seems to have been prompted by pressure from North Korea (who produced his father in a video here and here) denouncing him as a liar and from fellow exiles, who saw that certain elements in his story didn’t square and were afraid that Shin would destroy what little trust NK exiles get. I see the point of his fellow exiles. But let me repeat: North Korea undertook a big propaganda effort to discredit Shin. This tells me two things: one, they are afraid of what he has to tell. And two, North Korea is putting enormous pressure on Shin. Hello, people? Do I have to connect the dots here? Fill in the blanks? I hope not.
In the meantime, I suggest we don’t let ourselves be distracted by cyberhacks, disappearing dictators or other juicy news such as the most prominent NK exile changing his story. The concentration camps are still there. People still perish. People are still being raped, tortured, executed. What Shin did deserves our empathy. The burden is with us to make sense of his story (of any camp survivor) in our terms. Not on him. If you want an unblemished knight, go read a fairytale. If you like unblemished records, watch Floyd Mayweather fight. The stories of North Korean camp survivors are full of (self-)blame, defeat, death, suffering and an occasional victory. They’re real, even if the facts don’t always square. They are as full of blemishes as they are human.