Full Disclosure: I consider Dong Hyuk a friend.
Over the weekend we all heard some troubling news. Parts of Shin Dong Hyuk’s account in Escape from Camp 14 are not true. He did not grow up in Camp 14. He actually grew up in Camp 18. He had actually escaped twice. The list goes on. The question will be asked in the coming days as to why he chose to tell the story as is, but it appears to all those involved, the why is not of interest. After all, the admission is out, the damage is done. Right?
People will be quick to jump on the bandwagon to lambast SDH. The regime and the regime apologists will urge us to throw out the baby with the bathwater. After all if someone could not be truthful about where he grew up, how could we trust the rest of the story? There will also be embittered defectors and human right activists who will feel betrayed, perhaps rightly, about this all. Many of us went up to bat for him, and those who did will feel like they’ve been given a swift kick in the head. We will complain about how this damages the credibility of all defector testimony in the future, the chief tool we have used to give light to the human rights situation in the DPRK.
Surely SDH misled us. There is no question about this.
Yet before I too jump on this bandwagon, there are a few things that have given me pause.
The first is that simply put, the revised testimony does not change the fact that there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of people who are still suffering in camps that SDH described. As Greg Scarlatoiu of HRNK eloquently put it over the weekend, there is no difference between Camp 14 or Camp 18, or to that fact, Auschwitz, Dachau, or Birkenau. Even those camp survivors who tried to discredit SDH’s story will not deny that the horrors still continue.
The second is SDH’s tireless work for the North Korean human rights movement. In my own conversations with him, he did not seem to relish what he did. To me, that was understandable: who would enjoy speaking about some of the worst parts of their lives, over and over again? Despite this, SDH felt burdened to press on. His fame from the book helped push some of the key milestones that the movement has witnessed, including the whole Commission of Inquiry as well as the UN Security Council adopting the North Korean human rights issue as a permanent discussion point. Despite all the fingerpointing that is coming from both defectors and human rights advocates alike, they owe him a grand debt for advancing the cause as much as it has.
But apart from the practical aspects, there also remains, at least from the news coming out this weekend, of a more idiosyncratic aspect of SDH that has been completely overlooked: the fact that SDH, at least in his early days of freedom, was no ordinary man.
To get a better glimpse of what SDH may have been going through in his early years in South Korea, we must go to the few other historical examples which we can even dare draw from: the Holocaust. Due to the sheer sample size of the number of Holocaust survivors, there is well documented study on the psychiatric conditions of the survivors themselves, especially regarding their testimony.
As the research has sadly confirmed, for many who have gone through horrific trauma, the truth remains a fuzzy and malleable prism. The most recent case in collective memory was that of fourteen years ago, about a survivor named Deli Strummer. Ms. Strummer was once a legend in Baltimore, a Holocaust survivor who had a veritable knack for recounting her story and inspiring others to action. Yet as it slowly came out, blow by painful blow, Ms. Strummer’s account was factually incorrect. Her whole life started to unravel.
Why did Ms. Strummer bend the truth? The article ventures one guess:
When it is something more, says Dori Laub, a survivor and Yale University psychiatrist who studies Holocaust accounts, the explanation likely has more to do with guilt or great loss than self-aggrandizement.
“Memories–they can bend or be bent when the truth is extraordinarily painful,” says Laub, who has not studied Strummer’s case. “Narrative is influenced by trauma.”
SDH seems to fit this description to the T. If we believe the rest of SDH’s narrative, one which saw his mother and brother executed, one which he experienced torture that both physically and mentally scars him to this day, one where he spent the greater part of a year going in and out of psychiatric institutions in South Korea, then the explanation can remain: the enormous guilt, of his mother and brother, of leaving his father behind, of simple survivor guilt, influenced him to do what he did.
Now before we start heaving that stone, yelling “but he shouldn’t have lied in the first place!”, we should again go back to the Holocaust experience. It appears that Holocaust survivors, having experienced extreme trauma that to a certain degree, is unbelievable, suffer a disconnect in credibility – they simply do not believe that what they have said will be believed.
One may say, “fine, Holocaust survivors may have gone through this, but there’s no evidence to suggest that this happened to SDH.”
That may be true, but for anyone who knew SDH in his Early Years and SDH of Today, you would have met a different person. Literally. Early SDH is actually quite well documented in Camp 14: Total Control Zone – he is evasive, he is not forthcoming, and he is uncomfortable in speaking about anything in his past. Early SDH was at the end of several bouts with psychiatric institutions.
Contrast that with the Today SDH. Apart from personally witnessing it myself, there are many clips on the web that show how different a person he is. He is a public figure. He is inspirational. He invokes standing ovations, from Dalhousie University, where he is an honorary doctoral recipient, to Los Angeles, where he was a made a champion by one of the foremost human rights organizations in the world.
To me, having been able to see the remarkable evolution between Early SDH and Today SDH, the only way I can describe it is humanization. Only a few years removed from one of the most harrowing places on earth, the Early SDH was still mentally a prisoner in the camps. The SDH of Today is more liberated, free – more human. More loved, and in love. The Early SDH did not know what the concept of “love” actually meant. The SDH of Today will soon be married.
If those who suffer from extreme trauma suffer from guilt, from disconnect, where memories can be bent as a mere psychological coping mechanism, how much can we really blame SDH the man, who back when his biography was being written, carried the same psychological profile?
Whether this is true or not may come out in the next few weeks. Or it may not – SDH may simply walk away from this all together. SDH’s actions may fit the above; he may have made what he thought was an honest oversight; or he may have misled us all intentionally. Regardless, knowing what we know about Holocaust survivors, we cannot separate SDH the Man v. SDH the Activist.
To discount this would be not only dismissing the unique situation North Korean concentration camp survivors find themselves in, but also dismissing the unique situation of any of the 80,000 – 120,000 prisoners who are still in the camps that we wish to one day meet as survivors. At the very least, we owe them all the benefit of the doubt.
So despite all that has gone on this weekend, Dong Hyuk is still my friend.
Written by: Jack Kim