Are the Defectors Telling the Truth? Why the Horrifying Stories of Life in North Korea May Be Fabricated

From incredible getaways, to shootouts, to parasites left in their bodies, the stories of North Korean defectors never cease to amaze. Since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, we’ve all been transfixed on what life in North Korea is really like. And according to reports from those who have successfully escaped from the country, it’s worse than any of us can imagine.

Some of the defectors’ stories seem downright unbelievable. And perhaps there’s evidence that they are, in fact, fabricated. Here’s what we know.

1. Yeonmi Park told a harrowing tale of escaping North Korea

Yeonmi Park speaking behind a podium.

Yeonmi Park’s story has been questioned. | One Young World via YouTube

Known as one of the most famous North Korean defectors, Yeonmi Park’s story is nothing short of amazing. According to The Diplomat, she talked of the regime brainwashing her, starving her, and forcing her to watch executions. But she eventually crossed the Gobi Desert into freedom and has become a celebrity defector because of it.

Felix Abt, a businessman who worked in North Korea for seven years, was one of the first to notice inconsistencies in Park’s story. Park mentioned seeing dead bodies floating in the rivers every morning in North Korea, and Abt says that’s clearly false. And another North Korea analyst says “it sounds like she is being told to perform.”

Next: This one aspect of Park’s story really makes no sense. 

2. Park said she saw a public execution — but the facts don’t add up

Yeonmi Park during an interview.

Is her story really true? | ZeitgeistMinds via YouTube

Park claims that when she was just 9 years old, she watched the public execution of her best friend’s mother. The crime was watching a Hollywood movie — though The Diplomat explains how Park changes her story depending on her audience.

In one version, the mother is watching James Bond. In other variations of the story, she’s watching South Korean DVDs. And Andrei Lankov, one of the world’s authorities on North Korea, says he’s very skeptical as to whether or not watching a Western film would lead to an execution. Murder, large-scale theft, and human trafficking are the types of crimes associated with public killings, Lankov says.

Next: Even other defectors don’t believe aspects of Park’s story. 

3. Other defectors say no one has ever been executed for watching American films

A man takes a photograph with a cell phone.

North Koreans would not be publicly executed for watching Hollywood films. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

The Diplomat says one defector who escaped in 2009 laughed when asked if she’d ever known of anyone executed for watching Western movies. “That has never happened before. I go to church with around 350 defectors and you ask any one of them and they will say exactly the same thing,” she told the publication.

According to the defector, watching these types of films or South Korean dramas would certainly get you in trouble — but not to this extent. You can expect three to seven years in a prison camp instead, where the horrible conditions might kill you eventually, but not immediately.

Next: This defector attained fame and fortune from a novel about his life. 

4. Shin Dong Hyuk’s prison camp experience was turned into a best-selling novel

North korean activist Shin Dong Hyuk speaks in front of protest posters.

Shin Dong Hyuk has made a living telling his story. | Karen Bleier/AFP/GettyImages

One of the most famous defectors, Shin Dong Hyuk, describes in horrifying detail what his life was like in North Korea before his escape. Shin talked extensively about his life in a prison camp, The New York Times explains. And according to his story, his family and him were sent to one of the most brutal camps in the country, where he would watch his mother and his brother be executed.

His story touched many, and CNN notes he even won several human rights awards. And he also inspired a biography about his life, titled Escape from Camp 14, which was translated into 27 languages.

Next: Was Shin Dong-Hyuk lying about his experience?

5. Shin confessed that parts of his story are untrue

Shin standing in front of a poster while wearing a suit and tie.

He eventually told the truth. | Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Shin rose to fame quickly following the release of the book in 2012. And The New York Times says he retracted several statements in the years after.

While Shin first said he was in one of the most brutal prison camps in the country, he actually served most of his time in Camp 18 — a much less severe camp than 14. North Korea even put out a video explaining why Shin’s story was false. And though the video was full of propaganda, it also included an interview with Shin’s father correcting his son’s story. Shin later publicly apologized for stretching the truth.

Next: Why fabricate the stories, anyway? 

6. For some defectors, fame and fortune is the reward for a good story

Shin Dong Hyuk speaking into a black microphone.

Activists often have a reason for stretching the truth. | Jung Yeon-Je Jung/AFP/Getty Images

So, why do some defectors stretch the truth? Reuters reports defector Kang Myung Do says broadcasters may be the problem, as they can be pushy for a juicy story. As for Kang, he was earning nearly $100 every day while he appeared on a South Korean news show, which was a nice perk. And many other defectors demand money for TV interviews and appearances as well, says Kim Young Soon, another North Korean survivor.

The issue with defecting is that once the survivors are in South Korea, there aren’t many opportunities for work. This can make selling their stories, even under a low profile, a good way to make ends meet.

Next: Many defectors worry about how these false claims will affect the group as a whole. 

7. And other defectors are concerned exaggerated claims will make the world doubt them

Yeonmni Park speaks at a conference.

Activists like Yeonmi Park are doing a great disservice to their causes. | TED via YouTube

North Korea has its human rights issues — there’s no doubt about that. And while defectors want their stories to be heard worldwide, they also want the truth to be told the loudest.

The Diplomat interviewed several defectors, and they all echoed the same concerns. They’re worried exaggerating the horrors of North Korea could make the actual true stories seem a lot less credible. In the case of Yeonmi Park, who escaped when she was just 13, she says her childhood memories are far from perfect. But when the whole world’s listening, the defectors worry these flawed accounts could cost them their future.

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