The problem with North Korea’s celebrity defectors

North Korea defector and activist Shin Dong-hyuk speaks during a human rights rally outside the White House in July, 2012. Shin, 30, gained fame as the first person to escape from a "total-control zone" grade internment camp, called Camp #14 — but in January, 2015 he admitted his story was partially fabricated.
Chip Somodavilla

FRESNO, California – How embarrassing for our vaunted free press to watch the world’s least-free media bring low the North Korea human rights movement’s poster boy.

In a bestselling biography, Escape From Camp 14, Shin Dong-hyuk had claimed to have spent his miserable youth in a maximum security death camp operated by the North Korean counterpart of the KGB.

After his father had appeared in a North Korean documentary and denied Shin’s account, the son last weekend admitted that it wasn’t true. He had spent most of his young life, he now admitted, in Camp 18, a less oppressive prison run by the ordinary police.

He changed other aspects of his story as well. Researchers are working to see how much of the remainder holds up.

Some reactions were predictable. “This is why any defector confession cannot be trusted,” complained the guy commenting just ahead of me on a Facebook thread discussing the news. “They are pushed to report as negatively as possible and used as puppets for western propaganda.”

Here we go again, I fear, with blanket dismissal of defector testimony, an attitude that was prevalent for the couple of decades preceding the end of the Cold War.

Full disclosure: I have a large personal stake in trying to keep that from happening, as explained below. But first, the bottom line: We know a lot now about the pressures on everyone living in North Korea, beneath the level of the ruler, to become accomplished at lying. That skill is essential to survival. And the habits of mind required for survival while in the country are not always easy to break after North Koreans defect.

That does not mean defector testimony should be dismissed out of hand. It’s an extremely important form of evidence about an otherwise largely inaccessible society. Such testimony must be handled with extreme care, however. It’s most useful when multiple defectors are interviewed so that their versions of North Korean reality can be examined side by side and compared.

Instead, what we're seeing is a trend in which individual defectors become solo stars of print and broadcast.

The old rejection of defector testimony partly reflected a matter of numbers. Defections of North Koreans to the South were very rare until the 1990s. South Korea’s military-backed right-wing dictatorship had needed to struggle to avoid losing the domestic public opinion war to the communists up north. The southern government had been more than happy to set up significant numbers of those scarce defectors as highly publicized propagandists, dispatching them to speak against the Pyongyang regime.

By no means all the defectors of the era fit that description, fortunately. And some scholars, notably Robert Scalapino and Chong-Sik Lee in their groundbreaking 1973 work Communism in Korea, showed that with proper handling defectors’ testimony could yield a treasure trove of verifiable information.

But in the 1960s and ‘70s academic fashion shifted. Some young scholars, inspired by the movement against the Vietnam War and seeing a parallel in Korea, developed a revisionist view of the peninsula’s divided post-World War II history. In their version the main villains were South Korea, the interventionist United States and the previous generation of Western, Cold War-era Korea scholars – especially Berkeley’s Scalapino, whom leaders of the younger group characterized as an anti-communist zealot.

The leftist scholars became highly influential. An anti-South Korean cast of mind was not uncommon among academics pursuing Korea studies in English-speaking countries – even, for a time, after South Koreans, already having achieved industrialized prosperity, won the right to elect their leaders.

A sympathetic view of the North Korean regime persisted even after the northern economy fell apart at the end of the Cold War. Deprived of aid from previously fraternal East Bloc countries after world communism collapsed at the end of the Cold War, the North then sank into a horrible famine in the mid-1990s sending thousands of hungry refugees a year to China, South Korea and elsewhere.

Around that time, having set out to write a book about North Korea, I innocently let it drop to a group of revisionist scholars that I planned to emulate Scalapino and Lee; I was learning some remarkable things by interviewing the newer defectors, I told them.

Their reaction was furious.

One of my arguments was that there were by then so many northern defectors that it would be impossible for the South Korean government to turn all of them into propagandists — even if, under its new democratic management, it wanted to.

But my basic argument was that it was essential to learn about North Korea — which was developing nuclear weapons — but impossible to do so without interviewing defectors. After all, the country maintains the tightest controls anywhere on information going in or coming out.

No dice. I lost what I’d thought was a close friendship with one of those anti-Scalapino scholars, and his friends joined him in denouncing my project.

My method was to interview many defectors and cross-check their stories against one another and against other evidence, including the regime’s own pronouncements. After 13 years’ work, the book came out and got decent reviews.

Defector testimony came back into fashion. Its use is now routine.

Unfortunately, the process has gone so far in that direction that individuals once again are being turned into celebrities — this time via their own books and lectures and broadcast appearances.

Each of the current celebrity defectors carries on his or her slender shoulders a big chunk of the critical human rights narrative — much as had been the case in the bad old days when the South Korean dictators were pulling defector strings.

I have previously offered some gentle criticism on this subject. Lately, other critics have been less gentle.

The practice is unlikely to stop entirely, in view of the amounts of money that can be made when a defector takes on celebrity status. I just hope that as many people as possible – especially campaigners seeking to improve the human rights situation for North Korea’s long-suffering citizens – will now begin to have second thoughts, realizing this approach can hurt that cause.

The author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, veteran Asia news correspondent Bradley K. Martin holds the Roger Tatarian Endowed Chair in Journalism at California State University, Fresno.

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