January 21, 2015 – North Korea argued today that the admission of inaccuracies in the memoir of a high-profile gulag survivor rendered any existing or future UN resolution on Pyongyang’s human rights record “invalid”.
Defector Shin Dong-Hyuk acknowledged this week that some elements of his story as told in the best-selling book “Escape from Camp 14” were inaccurate, although he stressed that the crucial details of his suffering and torture still stood. But a spokesman for North Korea’s Association for Human Rights Studies, said his admissions “self-exposed” the flimsy foundations of efforts by the United States and other “hostile forces” in seeking to censure Pyongyang for its rights record.
In a statement carried by the North’s official KCNA news agency, the spokesman noted that Mr Shin was among those defectors who had testified last year before a UN Commission of Inquiry that concluded North Korea was committing human rights violations “without parallel in the contemporary world”.
The commission’s report formed the basis of a resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly last month that urged the Security Council to consider referring Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The North Korean spokesman said Mr Shin’s recent retractions proved that the commission’s report was “a false document cooked up on the basis of false testimonies made by human scum”.
“So, needless to say, all the resolutions on human rights forcibly adopted against (North Korea) on the basis of such false documents are invalid,” he added. The Security Council held its first-ever discussion on the North’s rights record in December, but any referral to the ICC would almost certainly be vetoed by permanent members China and Russia.
The North has repeatedly sought to discredit Shin as a fabulist and criminal, and last October aired a TV interview with his father who called Mr Shin a “liar” and denied the family was even in a labour camp. Mr Shin said his father must have been coerced into denouncing him.
North Korean rights advocates have expressed disappointment with Mr Shin but stress that the huge volume of corroborative testimony of systemic rights abuses in North Korea remains unchallenged. Mr Michael Kirby, the retired Australian judge who headed the UN Commission of Inquiry, said Mr Shin’s partial retractions were “substantially immaterial” to the panel’s findings or recommendations.
Stressing that Mr Shin was only one of 300 witnesses interviewed by the commission, Mr Kirby said the panel’s conclusions were based on a mass of “overwhelming” evidence. “The dispute over Mr Shin’s evidence appears to relate to the exact detention camp from which he escaped,” Mr Kirby said.
“In the big picture of gross abuses of human rights of the entire population of North Korea over more than 65 years, his experience – although very important to him and his family – is not critical to the inquiry,” he added. For activists within the North Korean defector community, however, Mr Shin’s admissions are a genuine blow, especially given his high profile.
North Korea’s inaccessibility makes it hard to verify individual defector accounts of their lives in the reclusive state, placing a lot of weight on their personal credibility. Mr Shin was something of an activist poster-boy, giving speeches around the world, penning editorials and picking up awards.
The US-based Human Rights Watch described him as the world’s “single strongest voice on atrocities taking place in North Korea”. Mr Shin has acknowledged that the damage his retractions have done meant he “may not be able to continue” his activist work.