North Korean gulag survivor honored by Jewish groups recants escape testimony

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — A human rights activist who was honored by Jewish groups for denouncing North Korea’s system of gulags recanted key parts of his testimony about escaping from one.

The change in Shin Dong-hyuk’s testimony about escaping from North Korea’s high-security Camp 14 was announced Jan. 17 by Blaine Harden, an American writer who in 2012 authored a book about the North Korean’s alleged escape.

It was translated into 27 languages and its publication made Shin one of the world’s most notable activists against human rights abuses in North Korea because he was the only person to reach the West with what appeared to be credible accounts from that gulag.

“From a human rights perspective, he was still brutally tortured, but he moved things around,” said Harden, a former Washington Post journalist who first wrote Shin’s story for the newspaper in 2008.

Some of the events Shin, 32, said occurred in Camp 14 – where he had said he was born and lived until his 2005 escape from there – actually happened in Camp 18, which Shin omitted from his biography altogether, the Washington Post reported.

Shin has recounted his testimony before Jewish groups, including during five visits to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. and a meeting with survivors in 2009 at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. In an interview with JTA, he expressed an interest in learning more about the Holocaust.

He now claims to have tried to escape three times: Two failed attempts to escape Camp 18 in 1999 and 2005, followed by a successful break in 2005 from Camp 14, where he says he was transferred after the two previous escape attempts.

He also maintains he was born in Camp 14 but was moved to the less draconian Camp 18 at the age of six with his mother and brother.

It was there, after learning of his mother and brother’s plans to escape, that he betrayed them to the authorities, Shin told Harden. It was also in this camp, he said, that he witnessed their executions, and not in Camp 14 as he previously said.

Shin revised his story after the appearance online last year of a video containing an interview with Shin’s father, in which the father says that his son never lived in a political prison camp and that his testimony was false.