Why defectors change their stories

As familiarity with North Korean daily life grows, incentive to sensationalize also increases
January 21st, 2015

Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.

This week our question is:

Why do North Korean defectors such as Shin Dong-hyuk often change their stories when they arrive in South Korea?

I think the main reason North Korean defectors lie about their past is to draw attention to themselves.

With an influx of North Korean defectors, it is today much easier to learn about the ordinary lives of North Koreans than it was in the past.

Unlike during the Cold War, people in South Korea and the United States can learn about various aspects of North Korean society with relative ease. But since people are more familiar with North Korea than ever before, ordinary anecdotes or testimony by North Koreans are not likely to attract much attention anymore.

People don’t pay much attention to the news of a dog biting a person; people pay more attention when a person bites a dog. In a similar way, North Korean defectors are tempted to add testimony that may sound more shocking in order to stand out from others.

Recently, foreign journalists like Mary Ann Jolley have cast doubts on the credibility of Yeonmi Park’s story (a now well-known defector).

In her harrowing speech, Yeonmi said that she was forced to watch her mother get raped by a Chinese broker.

But while it’s true that Chinese brokers often ask female defectors to sleep with them, the reality is they cannot force those women to do so.

When I was on the way to South Korea, my Chinese broker also asked me to sleep with him. I clearly told him that I would rather return to North Korea than sleep with him, and he never asked me again.

Just remember: Brokers cannot earn their commission if a refugee returns to the North instead of arriving in South Korea.

One of my friends was also asked by a Chinese broker to sleep with him. I told her to say the same thing I did. As such, he could not rape her. It’s far more rational for brokers to take defectors to South Korea than taking the risk of raping them, in which case the female defector might decide to return to North Korea.

Also, if the Chinese broker was willing to rape Yeonmi’s mother in front of her, don’t you think they would’ve also raped Yeonmi? I’m not saying that everything Yeonmi said is entirely false, but I know what female defectors go through and I know I doubt the credibility of the story she told the world. So it is reasonable for foreign journalists to also cast doubt on her story.


Second, society creates an atmosphere that leads defectors to distort their stories.

Many people think of North Korea as an irrational country and they expect to hear extreme testimony from North Koreans. So, North Koreans who want to be in the spotlight create stories that sound more appealing to the media.

There’s a South Korean TV program called On My Way to Meet You, on which Yeonmi Park first appeared and became famous. On one episode I watched, I laughed so hard at the ridiculous testimony of one defector, who said that she had eaten corn from the poop of a rabbit.

I’m sure that at least one person in North Korea has eaten corn from rabbit poop out of desperation, but it’s ridiculous for her to say she has done so from a rabbit she kept at home. No one would believe this unless they were an idiot.

Rabbits are not wild animals that roam around in the mountains; North Koreans lock them up in cages and feed them. If this defector really ate corn from rabbit poop, it means that she had corn to feed her rabbits but not herself. Still, I think it is important to distinguish whether it was something she really wanted to lie about herself, or something TV crews made her say to increase ratings.

Third, it is important to ask whether Shin Dong-hyuk admitted to having changed the place and timing of his story on his own, or whether he was forced to do so by the North Korean government.

Shin testified to the UN Commission of Inquiry, leading to the UN resolution against human rights abuses in North Korea. The UN Commission of Inquiry could indict Kim Jong Un on charges of human rights violations at the International Criminal Court.

As such, it is possible that the North Korean government made Shin unwittingly lie that some parts of his story weren’t true, which would clearly undermine the credibility of his testimony at the UN COI.

Another thing to keep in mind is that some defectors may lie because they’re worried for their remaining family members in North Korea.


Lastly, I would like to give a piece of advice for readers: Take the stories told by defectors as their personal memoirs.

When you write a personal statement or CV, you would always emphasize your strengths and make your weakness seem minor. North Korean defectors are humans just like yourselves. Everyone wants to talk about things they’re proud of more than things they’re embarrassed about.

North Korean defectors may exaggerate some parts of their stories for the reasons above and it’s also possible that they’re unable to exactly remember everything about their past because it has been many years since they left North Korea.

Anyone could mistake the exact places and timing of events as time passes.

North Korean defectors such as Shin Dong-hyuk are the only people who can testify about the atrocities and human rights abuses in North Korea. Therefore, it is important not to banish them or dismiss the credibility of the testimony he’s given at the UN Commission of Inquiry.

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Translation by Elizabeth Jae

Picture: NK News

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About the Author

Je Son Lee

Je son is an “Ask a North Korean” contributor. She is in her late 20s and left Mt. Paektu in 2011. She can be reached at [email protected]