In the Making of North Korean Defector-Activists



In March 2013, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate human rights in North Korea and appointed Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge as the chairperson of the COI and two other commissioners. The COI report in February 2014 accused the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un of committing crimes against humanity and called for the case referral to the International Criminal Court. The COI was denied access to North Korea as the country did not approve the mandate and authority of the COI, claiming that the establishment of the COI as well as the appointment of the Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights were politically motivated to lead the regime collapse in North Korea. With denied access, the COI instead carried out 240 confidential interviews with North Korean refugees living in South Korea, Japan, the UK and the US, including Shin Dong Hyuk. Kirby[1] said that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) appointed practicing lawyers, instead of tenured professors, for the COI commissioners as it would involve intricate questions of international law and evaluation of evidence. He is confident that the gathered testimonies were enough evidence for North Korea’s grave and systematic violations of human rights that amount to crimes against humanity, if not genocide.

In January 2015, however, the DPRK government released the video of Shin’s father, claiming Shin’s stories were fake. Shin himself confessed that parts of his stories in his book are not correct. The parts were his time in Camp 14 and the age he was tortured. In his book, Shin also said his mother and brother were executed for trying to escape the camp, which is also questioned by other North Koreans.[2] Shin’s credibility as a human rights activist was damaged but many still firmly believe that he was a victim of human rights violations. They are numerous other stories told by North Koreans that are later found unreliable even by North Korean standards. Lee Soon Ok offered testimonies for the US House of Representatives in 2004 about torture and burning Christians to death in hot iron liquid in a North Korean political prison, the account of which was recorded in the US Religious Freedom Report. Lee was, however, later found not a political prisoner but a petty economic criminal, the fact of which other North Koreans counter-testinomied.[3] Kwon Hyuk gave the accounts to the US Congress that he was an intelligence officer at the DPRK Embassy in Beijing and witnessed human experiments in political prisons, which became a critical factor for passing the US North Korea Human Rights Act in 2004. Kwon’s testimonies were cited by BBC[4] and numerous South Korean newspapers without any verification. Kwon’s identity, however, was questioned by South Korea’s Yonhap News arguing that he never served in a political prison and was not in a position to access the information.[5] Kwon has disappeared from public eyes since then. Kim Hye Kyung, testified before the Canadian parliament that she had known a woman who killed her own baby and sold it as pork in a market in North Korea. Many North Koreans question the validity of her stories.[6]

While there is no doubt the North Korean regime has violated serious human rights, there is also a fundamental question about heavily relying on defectors’ testimonies as credible evidence. The evidence used in the US North Korea Human Rights Act and the UN COI is based mostly on former North Koreans’ oral accounts, which are also the sources of information in North Korean studies and policy analyses elsewhere. The most representational non-academic work entirely depending on defectors’ accounts is Barbara Demick’s international best-seller, Nothing to Envy. I have interviewed North Koreans in China, South Korea, Switzerland, the UK, Thailand and Malaysia as a North Korea watcher and human rights researcher since 1999. There are issues with the current methodologies used in investigating North Korean human rights and serious ethical dilemmas many researchers have to deal with when interviewing North Korean defectors/refugees. This work is partly my own confession, observation and self-assessment to improve the quality of North Korean studies.

Cash Payments for Defector Testimonies

Cash payments for interviewing North Korean refugees have been standard practice in the field. Whether to meet academic standards for guaranteeing transparency, honesty and ethical research is left to the researchers and journalists themselves. Stories must remain anonymous to protect the human subjects’ identities and personal security. Initially, the cost was to cover the meals and local transport for interviewees, which was approximately US$30 in the late 1990s when I first began interviewing North Korean refugees in China and South Korea. However, the fees went up to US$200 per hour when the author attempted to interview former North Koreans in May 2014 for another project I was involved with. A government official from the South Korean Ministry of Unification told me that the range of fees for interviewing former North Koreans in the South was US$50-500 per hour, depending on the quality of information s/he had. This practice raises serious questions about the payment as ethical research. What is the monetary value of a researcher’s evidence in the process of discovering the truth? What is the impact of payment on interviewees’ stories? How does the payment change the relation between a researcher and an interviewee? The more exclusive stories they have, the higher fees are. When a significant amount of fees and expenses are paid for exposure to the media, Western parliaments and the UN, participants tend to produce more ‘saleable’ stories. Defectors’ testimonies are not just unverifiable but also occasionally imagined, false or mythical as we find in Lee Soon Ok’s burning Christians and Kim Hye Sook’s killing babies to sell in the market.

1-1 interviews often generate exaggerated stories and inaccurate information. There are ways to rectify false information through double and triple cross-examinations and through multiple sources. However, these methods are highly time-consuming and some information with single sources are never verifiable unless we have direct access to the country of concern. North Korea is not likely to open its country for the international investigation on human rights situations soon. What I find as a more reliable methodology is focus group discussions and participatory observation of open group activities. Through these group activities, inaccurate information is self-filtered and verified by other North Koreans in the group. I have been using this methodology since 2012 in my studies on North Korean secondary migrants in London and other refugee case studies in the Asia-Pacific region. It turns out to be highly effective and mutually beneficial for both researchers and the human subjects in building trust and getting more reliable and contextualised information.

Unverifiable Data

As the number of North Korean defectors[7] reached 20,000 in 2010, earlier issues with oral accounts being not first-person eye-witness accounts but collections of secondary sources have been mitigated. The first-person testimonies have become the norm but at the same time, the stories involve younger victims with more tragic, dramatic, visual and emotional contents. Both Kang Chol Hwan (a grandson of political prisoners who spent ten years in Yoduk prison) and Shin Dong Hyuk (a son of a political prisoner who claims he was born in the Camp 14 in Kaechon) had dire camp experiences. Kang Chol Hwan, the co-author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang (Basic: 2001), was one of the very few political prisoners to appear before Shin Dong Hyuk, the real character of Escape from Camp 14 (Penguin: 2013). Both met the former US President G.W. Bush. Kang became a journalist at the South Korean conservative newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, and founded several advocacy groups. Shin’s prison stories became an international bestseller and were made into movies and documentary films, having intensified visual images of a young victim who survived his mother and brother’s public execution and highly emotional family betrayal.

The DPRK government launched a personal attack against Shin who testified for the COI investigation. The DPRK aired a video of Shin’s father claiming that his son was telling lies and that Shin was not born in the political prison. The government revealed Shin’s real identities including his name, birthdate and birthplace. It is not just the DPRK government that claims Shin’s accounts were fake. Many prominent North Koreans, including Kang Myong Do whose uncle used to be the head of Camp 14, Ahn Myong Chol who used to be a prison guard, Chong Kwang Il who was another political prisoner and Kim Hye Sook who was a prisoner at Camp 18, all counter-witness that Shin’s stories are lies.[8] Shin was under pressure and confessed in January 2015 that some of the stories in his book were not true.[9] They raise serious questions about the veracity of Shin’s testimony.

Changing names, using false identities or even identity laundering are common among North Koreans who escaped their home country. Lee Hyeon Seo, the author of The Girl with Seven Names, talks about her experiences in China and South Korea, using different names or pretending to be Chinese to survive in harsh new environments. To what extent a responsible researcher has to believe the stories of those who keep changing their identities and how to make of it depends on the researcher’s exposure to the North Korean community.

A researcher’s national, gender and age identities affect the dynamics with North Korean interviewees, which is often neglected in defector testimonies. An older white male interviewer who is not a Korean speaker would hear different stories from what North Koreans tell a younger South Korean female researcher, for example. The native Korean language help detect the nuance and sensitive information that cannot be identified when the communications are in English. The UN COI and US Congress hearings rely on interpreters. Many important details are lost, misinterpreted or misrepresented. However, the Korean language can also create hierarchical relations between younger researchers and older North Korean refugees as the former have to use honorific endings and the latter often do not when speaking in Korean. The latter expect the former to act and behave in certain ways. When interviewing North Koreans, the researcher’s gender is another factor. Comments on the researcher’s body, characteristics, marital status, education, class or parents are common, which may not happen to a non-Korean male researcher/investigator who has to rely on interpreters, for example. There are incidents where male North Korean interviewees sexually harassed female researchers. Researchers studying North Koreans have to bear in mind these different dynamics generated by their own nationality, language, gender, ethnicity and age identities.

North Korean refugees are well aware of what the interviewer wants to hear. Whether it is the UN COI, the US Congress or the Western media, the question has been consistent: why did you leave North Korea and how terrible is it? The more terrible their stories are, the more attention they receive. The more international invitations they receive, the more cash comes in. It is how the capitalist system works: competition for more tragic and shocking stories. This is probably better than collecting rubbish or cleaning toilet in South Korea. Many chose to become professional activists as Jason Strother covered in his latest report to 38 North.

In my 16 years of studying North Korean refugees, I have experienced numerous inconsistent stories, intentional omission and lies. I also witnessed some involved in fraud and other illicit activities. The breach of trust was so significant that I could not continue research. It affected my professional capacity to analyse and deliver credible stories in an ethical manner but also had a deep impact on personal trust I invested in the human subjects I sincerely cared about. We, researchers, are obliged not to disclose any information through which any person can be identified. This is the ethical dilemma many researchers working on/with North Koreans have to deal with. There are so many stories of North Korean survivors untold to the public.

False testimonies are detrimental to many activists and researchers who have worked on North Korean human rights. Many former North Koreans identify the source of this phenomenon as the market pressure on defector-activists. Ahn Myung Chol, former prison guard at Camp 22, said people like shocking stories and defector-activists are merely responding to them. Chong Kwang Il, former prisoner at Camp 15, says that the fame that books and media exposure has brought to defector-activists also traps them. Choi Sung Chol, the head of the Korean Nationality Residents Association, emphasises that “Most North Koreans do not worry about small factual mistakes as long as the big picture that North Korea violates human rights is right. We, North Koreans, know what is true and what is fake, but, at the same time, we do not want to ruin the bigger political moves like the UN COI or the US human rights act.”

Despite the controversies surrounding Shin and Park, there is a growing number of young(er) former North Koreans who speak English as a mode of communication without interpreters and use various platforms such as TEDTalks, podcasts or social media. Park Ji Hyun, Lee Hyeon Seo and Joseph Kim are among them. They tell powerful emotional yet unverified stories directly to the audience. Although much better than listening through interpreters, their English as a foreign language can also create the tremendous amount of miscommunication, misunderstanding and misinformation that will be lost in translation. A minor case was Park Yeon Mi’s ‘mountain’ and ‘hill’.

Access to Information

North Korea human rights watchers have little access to reliable information. The right to access to information is the most serious critical human right of all (not just North Koreans but also those who study North Korea) when it comes to human rights violations in North Korea. However, no access does not mean that the sources provided by defector-activists are not meaningful to study. Instead of using them as evidence for North Korean human rights violations, I would propose a close and dispassionate analysis of North Korean defector-activists’ accounts as a source to understand how they respond to the current political and economic environments including their primary motivations to survive, identity formation, norm diffusion and networks.

The Role of the South Korean National Intelligence Service

One thing I can never discover in a responsible scholarly manner is the roles of the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS), given the nature of the institution’s mandates. How much agency the defector-activists have depends on the power and control exerted on them by the NIS. There are, however, occasional hints that the NIS has been involved in the defector-activists’ North Korean human rights movements. Kang Chol Hwan, for example, said in one of his media interviews that the “NIS knew details of the political prisons and prisoners there. They even had the photo of our house.” After graduating from Hanyang University with a management degree, Kang worked for the Korea Electric Power Corporation for some time. In 1998 he started providing testimonies for the US congress, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy. How this was arranged is unclear but it is possible that it was done through the NIS. After a series of international testimonies and book publication, Kang established himself as a direct witness and victim of political prisons.

Shin Dong Hyuk left North Korea in January 2005 and arrived in Seoul in August 2006. Less than a year later in June 2007, Shin already had started talking to the UK government and parliamentarians. He published a memoir in Korean in 2007. It is hard to imagine how a 25-yeard old North Korean man rose this quickly within less than a year of arrival in Seoul, alone without any help. It is possible that the NIS has facilitated his career as an activist from the very beginning. As the number of North Korean arrivals increases, the NIS sometimes makes false judgments about so-called North Korean ‘spies’. One NIS director was sentenced to four years imprisonment for framing a defector as a spy in May 2015.[10] Shin, however, passed this test, was given a new name and birthdate, and almost immediately began his career as a witness on the North Korean ‘gulags’. Shin testified before the UK Congress, the UK Parliament or the UN COI.

NIS is silent about some of the false testimonies recorded in the US Congress, Shin Dong Hyuk’s inaccuracies or Park Yeon Mi’s inconsistencies. Park Yeon Mi, a celebrity North Korean human rights activist, stated that the NIS found her lost sister in China and brought her to South Korea. Inconsistencies in her stories were already well-covered by The Diplomat.[11] There are many incidents where the NIS falsely identified North Koreans or framed a few as spies. A 23-year-old North Korean named Park pretended to be another North Korean, Kim Un Chol who was known to be repatriated to North Korea. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees and the media identified him as a refugee who was allegedly deported to a labour camp in North Korea. The then head of NIS, Shin Gon, clarified at the ROK parliament that Park was not Kim.[12] Park resembled Kim physically and used it to escapee to South Korea. Many South Korean NGOs and missionaries[13] working in China helped Park’s journey to the South and arranged for him to speak to the foreign media. To what extent the NIS is involved in the making of North Korean defector testimonies will remain unknown. It will continuously dampen the quality reports on North Korean human rights.

[1] Michael Kirby (2014) Special Section on North Korea, Introduction, Asia-Pacific Journal on Human Rights and the Law, 15 (1&2), 1-12.

[2] “Escaping from Camp 14? I Never Believed,” JoongAng Ilbo, 31 January 2015, last accessed on 24 May 2015.

[3] Chang In Suk, then Head of the North Korean Defectors’ Association in Seoul, knew Lee Soon Ok and revealed that Lee was not a political prisoner. In an interview with the author in January 2015 in London, Choi Sung Chol, Head of the UK One Korea Association who is from the same North Korean city, Chong Chin, also witness that Lee was not a political prisoner but served a forced labour term for her forgery. Many former North Korean netizens in Seoul ( and whom author has met or interviewed all agreed Lee’s accounts were fake to attract the US State Department and the foreign media.

[4] “Access to Evil,” BBC, 2 January 2004 at last accessed on 23 May 2015.

[5] “BBC Report on the North’s Testing Chemical Weapons on Political Prisoners,” Yonhap News, 2 February 2004.

[6] Choi Sung Chol, “Chopped Son, Sold as Meat? Lies,” OhMyNews at last accessed on 24 May 2015.

[7] It is a more commonly used term to describe former North Koreans living in South Korea, indicating those defecting from the bad and turning to the good, which in itself is politically connoted, compared to the international term ‘refugees’. See B.H. Chung (2008) Between Defector and Migrant: Identities and Strategies of North Korean in South Korea, Korean Studies, 32, 1-27.

[8] “Escaping from Camp 14? I Never Belived,” JoongAng Ilbo, 31 January 2015, last accessed on 24 May 2015; Hwang Ho Taek, “NIS Dictating Shin’s Lies?,” DongA, 28 January 2015 at last accessed on 31 May 2015.

[9] “North Korea camp survivor Shin Dong-hyuk changes story,” BBC, 18 January 2015 at; “North Korean ‘Camp 14’ gulag survivor Shin Dong-Hyuk admits parts of story untrue,” ABC, 18 January 2015 at last accessed on 24 May 2015.

[10] “Spy Scandal Framing NIS Officer 4-Year Imprisonment,” Yonhap News, 20 May 2015 at; Elisabeth Shim, “South Korean intelligence agent sentenced to prison for framing defector,” UPI, 20 May 2015 last accessed on 25 May 2015.

[11] Mary Ann Jolley, “The Strange Tale of Yeonmi Park,” The Diplomat, 10 December 2014 at last accessed on 24 May 2015.

[12] The parliamentary records were requested in May 2015, but the National Assembly Library declined the request and said the information is classified for national security purposes.

[13] The roles of Korean missionaries are critically examined by Judy Han (2013) Beyond Safe Heaven, Critical Asian Studies, 45:4, 533-560; Jin-heon Jung (2011) Underground railroads of Christian conversion: North Korean migrants and evangelical missionary networks in Northeast Asia. Encounters: An International Journal for the Study of Culture and Society 4: 163–88.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. JUNG.N.Y says:

    NK뉴스 한국어판에서 송교수님 글을보고 몇자 남깁니다.현재 국제사회에 북한 정치범 수용소 출신이라고 나와서 증언하고 있는 김혜숙씨하고 신동혁,정광일 이사람들 가짜인것 같습니다.신동혁씨는 이미 자기가 거짓증언했다고 밝혔고 정광일씨는 북한에서 본명이 최광일이고 불법적인 밀수, 어린소녀들 인신매매한 죄로 교화소에 3년정도 수감 생활 했다고 합니다.교화소에 있을때 당간부출신 죄수 정광일과 같이 생활 했는데 한국에와서 노동자출신 신분을 속이고 간부출신 정광일의 이름,경력을 도용해서 사용하고 있다고 합니다.그리고 올해 UN북한인권기구에 가서 증언했던 김혜숙씨도 북한에서 본명은 장인숙이라고 하고 동네 부자집에서 고가의 물건을 훔치다 걸려 교화소에 3년간 수감되었다고 합니다.과거 정치범수용소출신이라고 미국의회에서 증언한 이순옥씨도 온성군 간부물자사업소에 근무할때 국가 재산들을 훔쳐서 빼돌리다가 교화소에 수감되었고 온성출신 탈북자들에 의하면 그 지역에서도 유명한 사기꾼이라고 합니다.탈북자들 말에 의하면 국정원조사가 철저해 자기 경력에 대해서 거짓 진술을 할수없다고 합니다(심지어 조사 받을때 거짓말 탐지기 까지 동원된다고함).정보기관에서는 정치범수용소 출신이라는 거짓 경력을 가지고 증언하는 탈북자들의 정체에대해 잘 알고 있을겁니다. 탈북자들을 이용해 북한인권 사기쇼를 하고있는 주범은….슬프네요.

    Liked by 1 person

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