Escape from the North

North Korean Defector Is Right to Be Wrong

A fellow North Korean escapee defends the author of 'Escape from Camp 14'.

My name is Lucia Jang. I am in my mid-forties. I am from North Korea, born and raised in a rural town near the Chinese border. My story, which involves surviving extreme poverty, human trafficking and imprisonment in harsh labour camps, as well as an enduring love and sacrifice born from this love, is the subject of the book Stars Between Sun and Moon, to be published this fall.

I am writing this letter in defense of Shin Dong-hyuk, another North Korean defector and the subject of the book Escape from Camp 14. Recently, it was revealed that Shin lied about some parts of his story.

As a fellow North Korean escapee and co-author of a memoir about my experiences, I would like to remind the public that Shin’s story is ultimately crucial, and that his coming forward to write his book was an act of tremendous courage. His story has helped shed light on the collective experiences of numerous North Koreans.

No matter what kinds of sufferings we might be going through, they were unknown to the world. We lived in what felt like a silent and absolute terror. Throughout my journey from North Korea I, as with most defectors, felt helpless. The growing international attention on the human-rights deprivations of the North Korean people has been remarkable for me to witness. Shin, as the most active advocate on the issue, has been instrumental in bringing about these changes.

I now add my own voice to it, which has not been the easiest because of the trauma of retelling the most difficult experiences of my life—but I have drawn my strength to do so from pioneers like Shin.

Shortly after liberation of the Buchenwald Concentration camp in 1945, the U.S. General and future president Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered for the entire camp, its conditions and its people to be photographed. His reasoning, as he sad, was “to be in a position from then on to testify about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief … that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda."

As the public dissects Shin’s narrative, let no one forget the wider and much important part of his story: that the human-rights abuses the world promised to never forget and never repeat after World War II have and still are happening.

For decades North Korea’s human-rights abuses have been known only to a small number of media outlets and advocates, and buried deep within the hearts of defectors who keep their stories and pain to themselves. Why doesn't the world know? One of the reasons might be, as a human-rights activist once told the co-author of my book, Susan McClelland, because North Korea has not had an Aung San Suu Kyi or a Dalai Lama, to garner the support of celebrities and to lobby global public opinion to sympathize with the sufferings of the North Korean people.

Sadly, in today’s celebrity culture, this statement is true. North Korean defectors have not had a recognizable face demanding the world to listen and act—until, of course, Shin came along and became that public face we much needed.

I believe, from my own experience, a number of factors may have led Shin to not disclose an accurate portrayal of his story.

First, the storytelling culture in which Shin and I were born was highly propagandistic and sensationalist. Only our supreme leader, Kim Il-sung, or those working directly under him wrote and disseminated the stories available to us—from children’s stories to artistic films, like the Flower Girl. These stories were told to enflame hatred against foreigners and instill a love of the state and our leader. These stories were told in an art form that distorted facts, or involved outright lies. We have not seen much in the way of a true account of events or personal experiences. We were not taught to believe that our individual experiences mattered, because the only personal account to hold significance was that of our leader. When we did write, it was with an unequivocal direction to fit our story to a specific mold. Our actual experiences mattered little, even to ourselves. Rather than facts and dates, which drive Western style storytelling, the details that are emphasized in our culture are the descriptions of the experience and its emotional impact.

Meanwhile, we were almost entirely cut off from the outside media. Entire families were sent to concentration camps if they were found to have smuggled films or literature in from South Korea via China.

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One must also take into consideration the starvation and extreme physical and psychological abuse almost all North Korean defectors, including Shin and I, suffered. Relying on memory even in the best of times is difficult. Any psychiatrist will say that of two siblings, one child’s recounting of life events within the family may differ greatly to the other child’s. Part of the reason is the child’s emotional state—Shin, like me, spent years malnourished and living with the effects of severe post-traumatic stress from severe torture and neglect. This has likely tainted memories, particularly of specific facts, like when certain incidents took place and for how long.

Even though I was imprisoned in North Korea, subjected to torture tactics to bend me to submission, and narrowly escaped death on multiple occasions, I do not purport to understand the degree of trauma suffered by someone like Shin.

I suspect another factor influenced Shin’s story telling. When he arrived in Seoul, he may have been pressured to tell his story a certain way. North Koreans in exile are vulnerable people. We cannot go home. We have to learn to live in a capitalist world. We have to act and speak to fit the modern society, which we have never experienced before. Our educations from North Korea are useless. The South Koreans, due to the continuing tension and hostility between the two countries, often cannot help but regard us with suspicion. We may have our basic physical and human-rights needs met, but we have little to no psychosocial supports. We are vulnerable, and human-rights groups, individuals within our own culture, even journalists, can influence us to tell our stories a certain way, to fit other agendas. I do not feel this was the case at all with Blaine Harden, the author of Camp 14—but by the time Harden met with Shin, how much had Shin already learned to tell his story a certain way?

What we must all remember is that until Shin came forward, we were a forgotten people, with media reports on my country of birth being told only when Dennis Rodman wants to visit, when Sony is hacked and North Korea is alleged to have done it, or when our leaders are assassinating their relatives and girlfriends. What no one knew until Shin spoke out were the everyday stories of people in a society that really is a modern day Oceania, and a real life 1984 on a planet in which technology leaves very little hidden anymore.

Most people outside of Pyongyang during the 1990s lived in conditions that resembled Nazi Germany…let’s not forget that this is the true legacy of Shin’s story.

I was able to gather my strength thanks to people like Shin. I believe in the telling of our stories. I wanted people to have an understanding of North Korean people as real people, like everyone else around the world. Even though we are not used to telling our story, we have begun, and I think it is important to continue to do so. What has happened to Shin cannot be a deterrent to other North Koreans to come forward and share their stories publicly, which is the only way that people outside of North Korea can learn and understand North Korea and its people—otherwise we would only left to speculate and decipher the actions of the government, and the people will be stifled completely again, both inside and outside of the country.

With Soohyun Nam.

Lucia Jang and Susan McClelland are co-authors of Stars Between the Sun and Moon, which will be out this fall from WW Norton and Company. Soohyun Nam is an immigration lawyer.