On February 21, 2021, South Korean media outlets reported that four North Korean defectors plan to sue Unification Minister Lee In-young for defamation over his recent remarks casting doubt over what defectors say about the North’s human rights situation. The matter is that on February 3, Lee said during a press conference with foreign media reporters that human rights-related testimonies of North Korean defectors “lack a process of checking and verifying” their validity.
The four defectors affirmed that Lee deemed their testimonies as “untrustworthy lies”, while their stories represented just the tip of the iceberg of the horrible plight happening in North Korea. “Speaking to the foreign press as if their testimonies are lies is an act threatening the defectors who fled (to the South) for freedom”.
In addition, the complainants believe that Lee was unable, or is unwilling, to protect North Korean defectors and improve the human rights situation in North Korea, although this is a key responsibility borne by the Ministry of Unification. The fact is that South Korea for two consecutive years opted out of co-sponsoring a North Korean human rights resolution at the UN. Seoul sponsored the bill from 2008 to 2018, but decided not to do so in 2019 or 2020, drawing heavy backlash from the country’s conservative lawmakers as well as professional “fighters against the North Korean regime”.
At a February 22 press conference, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Unification “sweetened the pill” just in case, declaring that the testimony given by North Korean refugees was “valuable material” to help shed light on the human rights situation in that closed country. He added that their words are constantly being heeded in Seoul to create an “accurate picture” of the situation occurring in the North. In addition, it was reported that while the complainants assert that Lee In-young considered their testimony to be an “untrustworthy lies,” in fact the minister simply stated that their statements could not be verified. That is no wonder, because according to South Korean law, libel can be punishable by up to two years in prison, or a fine of up to 5 million won (4,520 USD). Moreover, the laws do not speak about libel, but about defamation of character, when a person can be incarcerated for the truth if that causes reputational or moral damage.
But for the author, the fuss over the lawsuit raises the issue about to what extent the testimony given by the DPRK defectors represents a valid source, especially when it comes to heartbreaking stories of human rights violations.
The problems with defectors’ testimony can be broken down into two groups. The first has to do with the testimony of witnesses in general, and these difficulties are well comprehended by specialists.
First, not a single witness can remember a situation with complete accuracy. When people remember an event after a long time has passed, they deliberately or unwittingly distort the details involved. Second, the witness may misunderstand what is perceived. The most striking example is the statement made by one Russian journalist that there is no central heating in the DPRK because he did not see any radiators anywhere. However, in both the North and South of Korea, the traditional heating system is a “warm floor”, where the space heating system runs underneath it. Third, knowing the consequences of their actions, witnesses often engage in self-justification, or position themselves as having guessed everything from the very beginning, which makes the events in their recitals look more predictable and “orderly” than they are in reality. Fourth, people who have experienced traumatic experiences have a need to speak out and try to purge themselves of certain experiences.
That is why reconstructing events according to testimony that is given is usually done by comparing the testimony from several people. If the story told by one person may be inaccurate or biased, then describing an event from the hearsay given by numerous witnesses makes that picture more complete.
However, in regard to defectors, the issue of counterchecking their testimony runs up against certain difficulties: these people fled during different periods of time, from different places, and therefore it could be difficult to find two opinions about the same event.
And this is important, because while stories that buck against a certain trend usually elicit a desire to cross-check them (with the hope of refuting them), when a person who is a personal witness to something says things that fit well into the procrustean bed of underlying expectations, nobody counterchecks something “that is common knowledge”. Everyone already knows the recipe for the main course, and a specific story will only differ in the proportion of spices used, or where the side dish is located on the plate.
Now let’s focus on the idiosyncrasies that directly have to do with defectors from the DPRK, for whom storytelling is often an important way to improve their social status and financial situation.
First, it is important who is interviewing the defector. Son Ji-young, who has interviewed refugees for over 20 years, notes how much everything depends on how well the researcher is acquainted with a person’s context: it is easier to “pull the wool over white foreigners’ eyes”, since they do not understand the context in the same way that a Korean does.
Second, people interviewing defectors often perceive them as victims rather than witnesses. Generally speaking, they arouse sympathy in the interviewers, by virtue of which interviewers are less critical of what they hear, and therefore they do not have the desire to expose the narrator stating lies, or look for inconsistencies in the testimony.
Third, defectors try to make sure that interviews are held with them regularly and constantly, since for most defectors the fees they charge are a major increase in their income. This means that the defector can adapt to their interlocutors, and tell them things that they would like to hear. And if a fairly inexperienced interviewer gives tips about desirable responses with questions, such as “have you witnessed mass rapes at the stadium?” then the other party in the conversation may take this question as a cue to talk about that, regardless of whether he or she even saw it, heard some rumors about it, or simply thought it all up.
Some defectors embellish, exaggerate or trade their stories for money, she and other defectors said. Finally, it must be understood that the life of defectors in the South is closely controlled by the National Intelligence Service, which closely monitors the activity of defectors, and if something like “singing the praises of North Korea” is observed then they could face penalties under the National Security Act, and then the reputation of being a North Korean spy. Someone that has escaped from a totalitarian hell must expose the regime, not defend it.
These factors lead to the fact that within a set of defectors a subset of those forms that can be called “career defectors”. The most typical example is Shin Dong-hyuk. Back in 2014, his testimony was considered valid, and the basis of that the well-known UN Report on Human Rights in North Korea was drafted, drawing a direct comparison between the DPRK and Nazi Germany. However, already by early 2015 even its official co-author Blaine Harden “was forced to make an announcement that Shin admitted to making up most of his heartbreaking stories, which he fabricated to heighten their dramatic quality, and he needs to be pronounced an unreliable storyteller.
Nonetheless, in this kind of environment lying about the DPRK is not only allowed, it is something that is desirable. Kim Seong-min, the founder of Free North Korea Radio, in one of his interviews directly responded to a question about his attitude toward the most fantastic rumors that sometimes spread about what is happening in the North: “Any stories – whether they are truthful or not – are good, as long as they do not put the DPRK in a favorable light”.
However, a slew of widespread errors can be encountered in the stories told by this kind of community. They can be used to identify an “unreliable storyteller” whose testimony should be counterchecked at a minimum. The most obvious one is when the stories begin to resemble a “soap opera”, and narrators drastically overdo it with “heartbreaking details” that are aimed at evoking emotions.
A typical example of this is one quote from the stories by the famous defector Lee Soon-ok:
“… they use a kiln to bake bricks. When the newly fired bricks are removed, they push a person into this furnace. In a matter of seconds, the victim suffocates and loses consciousness… I resisted the best that I could, and burned by palms… Then they put me barefoot in the snow. As a result, I lost my toes…”
All that is left for the author to add is that the temperature in that furnace at that particular time was about 800 degrees.
As a result, while the testimony by defectors on other topics could be credible (especially when it comes to the body of testimony or conversations with ordinary, rather than career, defectors), the topic of human rights really does require additional verification. Otherwise, we get “boiled babies”, and one important problem gets its ears chewed off by fictitious stories. The more heartbreaking a story is, the more caution a scientist or journalist needs to take.
But unfortunately, given the power anti-Pyongyang propaganda has, attempts to cast doubt on this testimony provokes a reaction: “Those who have gone through such horrors cannot lie, and if you dare to doubt their words, then you yourself are no better than their executioners”. And these kinds of lawsuits are one consequence of that.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.