SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean defectors can usually tell when other defectors are lying about their past. As a panelist on a South Korean talk show that features female defectors like me, I heard other panelists complain privately that a few of the guests must have been embellishing their stories.
It’s not uncommon to hear defectors claim they graduated from a prestigious North Korean university, for example, while the rest of the details of their lives suggest this was highly unlikely. If defectors say they had high-level connections in Pyongyang or came from an esteemed institution in the North, they can gain better employment in the South, where life can be very difficult for North Koreans.
Shin Dong-hyuk, a prominent defector who shocked the world several years back with his disturbing tales of torture in North Korean gulags, confessed last month that parts of the personal history he had told the public were inaccurate. His dramatic story, which included being forced to watch the execution of his mother and brother, led to a lot of publicity and his role as a key witness for a United Nations inquiry into North Korean atrocities. He now says that instead of growing up in the notorious Camp 14, where most prisoners go to die, he spent most of his time in the less draconian Camp 18.
After the United Nations came out with its damning report in February 2014, Pyongyang’s propaganda officials circulated a video featuring wild accusations against Mr. Shin. It alleged he raped a 13-year-old girl and featured an interview with his father in North Korea who said they had never lived in a “so-called political prison camp.”