Mobilizing Human Rights Infrastructure in 24 Languages: Interview with Blaine Harden

By | May 01, 2013 | 2 Comments

Shin Dong-hyuk in Seoul; image courtesy Blaine Harden

Shin Dong-hyuk in Seoul | image courtesy Blaine Harden

It’s been a long, slow and frustrating road, but now, today, a mere fifteen years after the end of the “Arduous March,” interest in North Korea appears to have reached critical mass. Finally, pertinent questions about the DPRK are being asked and answered, as stories told by refugees from the country replace narratives of a place once bound, both physically and metaphorically, by trite, outdated terms like “hermit” and “crazy.”

For better or worse, one of the most popular of these refugee voices is that of Shin Dong-hyuk. Indicative of Shin’s stature is the fact that he needs no introduction, and his personal history requires little more than bullet points: 1) born in a North Korean prison camp; 2) betrayed family members and saw them killed; 3) miraculously escaped camp; and 4) resettled in South Korea.

But we must now also add to that: 5) went on to become the subject of a best-selling book. Shin’s story, encapsulated in the book Escape from Camp 14, is one of a short but growing list of essential touchstones in a tragic new cultural genre: “North Korean defector-refugee media.” Membership is small and select, to be sure, but rapidly growing in influence: Kang Chol Hwan’s “Aquariums of Pyongyang” probably started it, Hyeonso Lee’s utterly un-missable TED victory surely opened up new vistas for it, Eunsun Kim’s “9 Ans Pour Fuir L’Enfer” blew open the French market for it, and Ije Mannaro Gamnida has surely captured a corner of the South Korean televisual zeitgeist for it.

It is worth recalling, however, that only very, very rarely do the heroes of these pieces plough their furrows alone. Pierre Rigoulot arguably launched Kang’s rise to international prominence, and Sebastien Falletti was an indispensible part of Eunsun Kim’s success in the cafes down by the Seine. Similarly, Hyeonso Lee didn’t write her TED talk alone, though she certainly delivered it wonderfully.

In Shin’s case, the foil was decorated journalist and author Blaine Harden, and here, in the first part of a fascinating new three-part interview with SinoNK Chief Editor Adam Cathcart, he discusses the global impact of his book. Like “Aquariums,” like “Imangap,” like “9 Ans” and like so many more yet to come, Shin’s is a story that has the ability not only to captivate an audience, but maybe even to inspire change. – Christopher Green, Co-editor

Mobilizing Human Rights Infrastructure in 24 Languages: Interview with Blaine Harden

by Adam Cathcart

Adam Cathcart [AC]: Talk about the global impact of the book, in translation and beyond the U.S.

Blaine Harden [BH]: Right now there are 24 languages. So that is virtually all of Europe, every major country in Europe and the smaller countries. In South America: Brazil it did very well. In Asia: the Korean version came out in late April and in late February in Chinese. It came out in Japanese in the fall. And Russian is coming out early next year. So it is in every language except Spanish for some reason.

So that is the global thing and the sales abroad in Europe have been extraordinarily good compared to what we expected. It has been a bestseller in parts of Europe particularly- northern Europe. It was the best-selling book in Finland for about a month and a half and has sold well in Germany. So this is very unexpected.

AC: And to what do you attribute that success? Is it anything in particular or just the newness?

BH: It’s the power of the story. Who is this young man who until he was 23 years old did not know right from wrong and who didn’t know the world was round and who, when he was 13, betrayed his mother? He watched her die without any emotion and was glad to see her die. What kind of man can he become outside barbed wire? That’s the power of the story. The relationship of North Korea to the West, and the relationship between North Korea and China, and who is the leader in North Korea: All that is subordinate to the power of his story.

When I heard about him and first wrote up his life in the Washington Post I underestimated the power of the story to catch people and make them gasp. But the reaction to that story that ran in the Post four years ago was so great that I recalculated and I went back to Shin and I said if you would tell me your story I could do what I was sent to Asia to do: to tell readers how North Korea works in a new, fresh and compelling way. It’s his story that does it. There’s really not much information in that book that can’t be had elsewhere, except for his story. He came to South Korea and his sense of self-preservation was so acute that he knew he had to lie about his betrayal of his family. He knew that if he told the truth — that he was the one who sold out his mother and brother so he could get more rice and an easier job and follow camp rules — that he would be seen as a monster. He might be imprisoned. His sense of self survival was so acute and he kept with that lie very consistently until he told me in Southern California in 2010 that he had lied to protect himself. By 2010, he felt there were enough people who trusted him and loved him, who weren’t asking anything of him. He felt that he owed them the truth.

AC: To combine those two threads, Shin’s narrative with the European reaction: You write with a very clear purpose in evoking, occasionally, the Holocaust experience; Anne Frank, for example, and Elie Wiesel is another. At other times you cite literature on trauma and how people operate in a camp situation. My sense is that we are at a moment in Europe where there’s a logical question about what the next step is: You keep  remembering the Holocaust, but there is a question about what the application is today. Is Escape from Camp 14 speaking to that need?

BH: I think that’s exactly it. I used the references to Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank and other survivors of the Nazi death camps as a way of giving context to readers, giving them a way to understand Shin’s story. But the way the book was read, particularly in Europe, was as an existential lesson about what kind of man can be born and bred in a place like Camp 14.

And then also [we can see] the lesson of the Holocaust, and [that the pattern is] being–is actually being repeated in a certain way, in North Korea. These gross human rights violations are a pattern that the world tends to ignore. It’s not the same as Nazi Germany, but there are enough echoes of it and the Europeans saw that immediately and reacted to it.

There is a big human rights infrastructure in Europe and in the US. And Shin’s story gives that infrastructure something to mobilize around. Also his story is not ancient history: Camp 14 continues to operate. There are very good satellite images of it and the other camps. The same life is lived in those camps now as when Shin escaped in 2005. I’ve talked to three generations of camp survivors and they say the camps have not changed in any real way in the way that they’re operated. It’s this classic Stalinist model of limited food, punishing work, limited sleep, and brainwashing and early death. So I think [those parallels are] part of the appeal in Europe.

AC: To move the human rights conversation to the US, looking particularly at the role of Korean Americans: Melanie Kirkpatrick, in her book Escape from North Korea, sees kind of a rising wave of Korean-American involvement and consciousness in North Korean human rights issues, especially among students. But often Korean-Americans do not want to be associated in any way with North Korean issues: “It may as well be in Africa,” as one of my Korean-American students put it. Could you speak to this notion of Korean-Americans having conflicting impulses when they read your book or consider getting involved in this issue? 

BH: Well I think one of the great organizing mechanisms for Korean-Americans is the church in the United States. The churches have been very successful and they are very important parts of the lives of many Korean-Americans. First, second, and third generations. The churches have not been very active in human rights. They have not embraced this book and have not championed Shin or the question of human rights in North Korea. And why they have or have not done it I’m not sure. I think there’s a conservatism and unwillingness to get involved in politics because they are interested in making a living and having their kids do well. I don’t think the book has changed that very much but what the book has done and what Shin’s story has done is it has grabbed the imagination of a lot of younger Korean-Americans whose parents probably did not tell them much about North Korea. North Korea was just sort of a mystery and they knew in the headlines that it was a troublemaker. I remember going to Los Angeles recently for a talk to a Korean-American group and the young people were just flabbergasted to hear about Shin’s life. And they were interested in getting involved. But they grew up in families where this is not a subject of conversation. And I think that is still the case.

AC: That’s an interesting pivot point to think about the North Korean leadership today and Kim Jong-un. Do you think that the leadership in Pyongyang is at all interested in ultimately making a change with places like Camp 14? Is there any endgame for these camps beside the destruction or dismantling of the North Korean state itself? Do you see Kim Jong-un as having any interest at all –even if it’s just for propaganda purposes — in saying, “We are scaling back a bit [on the repression] and things are changing”? Is there any reason to believe that this could ever happen or that this new generation sees this as possible?

BH: There doesn’t seem to be any evidence at all that it’s begun to happen yet. Nothing that would suggest that. In fact the UN rapporteur suggested that people who oppose Kim Jong-un’s succession to power were sent to the camps. So the information is very limited. However, the symbolic stuff that he’s done would suggest that he understands the power of symbolism. His wife wearing pants in Pyongyang, talking about farm reform, all of this stuff suggests that he understands the power of symbolism to change the popularity of his government improve the popularity of government and to allow the country to open up economically to the outside world.

So it seems to me that there’s a possibility that that could happen. Historically when Stalin died the camps faded out of existence and the same thing with Mao. It didn’t happen overnight. But I think within six or seven years the camps were gone and the Soviet Union basically shuddered. That could happen in North Korea but there are no signs of it yet.

AC: When North Korea looks at Myanmar, do you think they are taking an active interest in how that regime, or others like it, are defragmenting some of their controls?

BH: I don’t know, but they had a relationship with Myanmar that involved the sale of some hardware and some solidarity in their isolation. And I’m sure they’re paying attention to the benefits that Myanmar is harvesting from changing what it is doing.

The thing that strikes me and has struck every analyst who studied North Korea from South Korea –the economic types, the technocrats who have relationships with other technocrats in Pyongyang in Beijing– they see a real win-win for the government to follow the Chinese model. You can keep your job you don’t get shot you have lots of power and wealth and yet you slowly raise the standard of living in the country through bringing in manufacturing– have people work at real jobs, earn real money and eat real food. Why not do that? And you can buy yourself time: the Chinese have bought 35-40 years.

Why can’t the North Korean leadership do that? Kim Jong-un is so young. If he wants to hang around and die in his bed like his dad it seems like a logical calculated move to preserve your power and increase the vitality of the state. But they’re not doing it so far. That’s the conundrum of North Korea.

Parts II and III of SinoNK’s forthcoming interview with Blaine Harden will focus on the Chinese border region with North Korea, and the role of journalists in telling stories from within, and about, the DPRK. 

Additional Readings:

Brooke, J., A Voice from North Korea Echoes in the White House, New York Times, June 18, 2005.

Cathcart, A., Before Unhasu Encores, A MemoirSinoNK, March 10, 2012.

Draudt, D. and Brian Gleason, Beautiful Defectors: An Exploration of South Korea’s Now on My Way to Meet YouSinoNK, August 3, 2012.

Green, C. and Stephen Epstein., On My Way to Meet Who?, Korean Quarterly, April-June 2013, p16.

Lee, H., Hyeonso Lee: My Escape from North Korea, for TED, filmed February 2013.

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