Shin Dong-hyuk: Finally Poised For Effective Activism

By | March 23, 2015 | No Comments

Shin Dong-hyuk in Seoul | Image: Blaine Harden

Shin Dong-hyuk in Seoul | Image: Blaine Harden

Some human rights activists have distanced themselves from political prison camp survivor Shin Dong-hyuk following Shin’s recent admission that he altered key parts of his life story as published, among other places, in the phenomenally successful Escape from Camp 14. Meanwhile, others have opted to stand by him – critically or uncritically, vocally or silently.

According to Eric Foley, fully embracing Shin’s admission can result in a more authentic kind of North Korean activism, where the co-creation of narrative brings us closer to understanding. Provided that we are willing to follow Shin’s lead and make a similar admission to his own. — Christopher Green, Co-Editor

Shin Dong-hyuk: Finally Poised For Effective Activism

by Eric Foley* 

Shin Dong-hyuk changed his very public life story.

The story Mr. Shin originally told, with Blaine Harden in the bestselling 2012 book Escape from Camp 14, detailed a Gulag childhood filled with gruesome beatings, familial executions, and a harrowing escape from a North Korean concentration camp. Following the North Korean government’s 2014 release of video of Shin’s father repudiating his son’s account, however, Shin confessed to Harden that their book did not accurately depict some of the details of his life story.

One newspaper paraphrased Mr. Shin’s complex admission about his narrative under the headline, “I lied.” Noted North Korea observer Andrei Lankov wrote that Shin had an “incentive to exaggerate… in order to win some attention in a rather crowded media market.” Donald Kirk contended that Shin’s actions “raise questions about the credibility of thousands of North Koreans who’ve defected,” a population the commentator says has “long been notorious for distorting their life stories.” Activist Joshua Stanton pronounced, “No man matters more than the truth itself.”

Neither Lankov, Kirk, nor Stanton is known for reflexive skepticism of defector testimonies. But undergirding these comments is an understanding of narrative in which life story is the creation and responsibility of the one who lives it and tells it. That is, it is Mr. Shin’s life story, and listeners/recipients are entitled to truth. Little role is accorded to hearers in the formation of that story.

But those who study life story narration (especially the life story narration of North Korean defectors) observe a different relationship between those who tell life stories and those who hear them—one that places far more responsibility on hearers than has been reflected in the discussion following Shin’s admission.

Life Stories: Co-Created Accounts | Life story narrative is what noted linguist Charlotte Linde refers to as a coherence system, “a system that claims to provide a means for understanding, evaluating, and constructing accounts of experience.” In other words, we tell stories—including life stories—in order to help others understand and evaluate our experiences. As such, stories must be coherent not only to the teller but also to the hearer.

As narratologist Jerome Bruner notes, tellers do not (and cannot) communicate the strange new worlds of their experience to hearers except that they re-create those worlds from “other worlds, created by others… taken as given.” That means that tellers have the challenging job of narrating their life stories from within the meaning framework of the hearer, using words, ways of thinking, and even emotions and actions that make sense to the hearer.

Linde explains that coherent life stories exhibit two characteristics. First, they evaluate the teller. That is, they describe the kind of person he or she is in a particular situation or setting. Second, they have “extended reportability,” meaning they are the kinds of stories likely to be told over and over again. Where lives intersect “landmark” events—both epochal public ones (e.g., natural disasters, social events that transform whole societies, the death of Kim Il-sung) and common personal milestones (e.g., marriage, childbirth, communist party induction rites), the life story must necessarily give account of such events. For example, when the exiled writer Jang Jin-sung tells us that he met Kim Jong-il, we tend to expect him to give a coherent account of that meeting, describing not only the North Korean leader but his own interior monologue in a way that makes sense to us. The framing of an effective story allows for coherent re-telling.

This is why it is easier to narrate the life story of Shin the activist than Shin the man: Shin the activist may make use of tropes, emotions, clichés, and reactions common to human rights activists, consumers of refugee stories, and readers of concentration camp accounts in narrating his landmark life events. In fact, as Christopher Green noted in a Sino-NK interview with Blaine Harden in May 2013, it was the reality that Shin’s life story could be told through “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”—that made Shin the activist such an icon.

But narrating the life of Shin the man is much more difficult. He must narrate an authentic self-evaluating account that makes sense within his hearer’s understanding about events in life that make no sense. He has to somehow authentically narrate sending his mother and brother to death by reporting plans of their camp escape to a guard, all because (as Shin later told Harden) “She never paid attention to my birthday.” These are hard stories for a teller to narrate authentically because the teller knows that hearers will likely find such thoughts and actions objectionable or incomprehensible, especially if the hearer is not familiar with the teller’s world. So the teller is faced with a challenge and a choice: How do I narrate this story which is beyond the comprehension of my hearers?

Narrating Incoherence: Seeking Meaning | It is possible to say something more meaningful about Shin’s narrative revisions than “Shin lied” or “Shin has exaggerated in order to win some attention in a rather crowded media market.” Within the psychoanalytic tradition Shin may be said to have at least four options for narrating through incoherency. Lying or exaggerating is certainly one.

A second is that, to borrow the terminology of psychoanalysts Cox and Theilgaard, Shin “finds his own story intolerable” and descends into the silence of narrative failure.

A third option is that Shin engages in what psychoanalyst Donald Spence calls narrative “smoothing,” in which, faced with “a discontinuity or a lack of closure or a failure to make sense,” he uses shared conventions and approximations from the hearer’s world to “smooth over” the incoherency in order to make understanding possible. Smoothing differs from lying in that it is a grasping at aiding the hearer in sense making, an effort to reveal rather than conceal, using whatever resources are available from the hearer.

A fourth option is that Shin receives additional resources for life story narration from the hearer. Such resources, broadly termed “prompting” in the psychoanalytic tradition, are interventions hearers make when they sense that a narrative is beginning to veer into lies/exaggeration, silence, or smoothing.

A prompt is an intentional effort to “upend” the narrative in an effort to save it from inauthenticity and incoherency. A prompt might include requesting the teller to re-narrate the story from the points of view of different people within it other than the teller. Alternately, a hearer could ask the teller, “What parts of this story do you yourself still not understand? Are there different ways you sometimes tell this story in your own mind?”

A prompt can take the form of hearer sharing with teller a similar story, only one with more authenticity, for example:

I once heard a story about someone in a similar situation. They said [x]. What do you think of that? Did you experience anything like that?

A hearer can also make a request for a more unedited account, something like:

OK, that’s the easy version of a hard story. Now tell me the hard version that maybe doesn’t even make sense to you. Tell me the parts that will make me not like you.

Prompts remind the teller that there are multiple ways to tell the same story, and the hearer is ready to accept a more difficult, less coherent telling. Generally the cost is that tellers and hearers give up the coherent or attractive story and agree to labor together narratively for the harder but more authentic one.

Shin Dong-hyuk, whose life story is told by Blaine Harden, protests the repatriation of North Korean defectors living in China. | Image: Dan Bielefeld

Shin Dong-hyuk, whose life story is told by Blaine Harden, protests the repatriation of North Korean defectors living in China. | Image: Dan Bielefeld

The Responsibility: Hearing Well | Recognition of this reality of life story narration means new responsibilities for hearers. Hearers are revealed as the necessary co-creators without whom life story cannot come into being. What hearers contribute are relational and structural tools for the telling of stories. Raised in a country where only one story is taught—the story of Kim Il-sung—North Korean defectors are especially reliant on the narrative tools and prompts provided to them by their hearers for the conveyance and interpretation of their life stories.

As was the case with Shin, the first life story narration most defectors undertake is nearly always before a South Korean government interrogator tasked with determining whether or not they are spies and whether they have a legitimate and defensible claim to South Korean citizenship. It is difficult to imagine a lower grade of narrative life story co-creation than interrogation.

Yet once a defector’s life story narrative is established, it rarely changes without intense scrutiny—even for defectors who do not publish autobiographies. Shin’s own story remained the same for more than nine years, and that was seemingly part of its appeal. Unfortunately, Shin’s hearers did not detect that his original telling had had its genesis in a “panicky, shame-driven decision to conceal and reorder” his experiences as part of his initial interrogation.

The consistency and coherency of his telling pointed to a problem: Consistent, coherent narratives from survivors of extreme trauma should not be heard as “objective” or “true” accounts but rather as symptoms of stress-survivor behavior, efforts to shield the self from narrative failure. As Harden later heard from Dr. Stevan M. Weine, a specialist on political violence and trauma, “When someone goes through profound trauma and I don’t hear a disjointed story, I am suspicious.” Disjointed stories, paradoxically, may thus be a sign of hearing well.

Psychoanalytical practice aside, we are still left with Donald Kirk’s stinging and uncomfortable question to Mr. Shin: “Why, oh why, did you feel the compulsion to make up key details when clearly your own harrowing tale was already horrible enough?” Perhaps the answer is: Because in life story narrative, we get as good as we give. That is, the narratives we hear depend as much on us and how we listen as they do on the teller and what the teller chooses to say. So when we get a coherent, unchanging life story from a self-reported trauma survivor, we should give not a publishing contract but rather further time, effort, relationship-building, and disruptive prompts so as to rescue the teller, and ourselves from our tropes and stock-and-trade emotions and reactions within which the teller must narrate.

Blaine Harden and Shin Dong-hyuk in Seoul, 2011 | image courtesy Blaine Harden

Blaine Harden and Shin Dong-hyuk in Seoul, 2011 | Image: Blaine Harden

Shin Dong-hyuk: An Activist Revived | Thus, the question is not whether we forgive Shin or whether we believe him now. The question is: To what degree do we as hearers take responsibility for the narrative (and the activist) that we co-created, one fundamentally shaped by the horizons of our hearing and understanding? If Shin is guilty for the story he told, then we are also guilty for how we heard it, because his story is dependent upon both.

Activist Joshua Stanton dismisses the revised life story of Mr. Shin as discredited and says we should rely instead on “the testimony of 80 [North Korean defector] witnesses and experts, and… 240 confidential interviews with [North Korean defector] victims and other witnesses.” While Stanton’s concern is with protecting the perceived credibility of the UN Commission of Inquiry report (in whose 320+ pages Shin’s testimony is footnoted six times), his comment also reveals the limitations of our hearing. The stories of these 320 are, of necessity, as co-created as Mr. Shin’s and liable to the same limitations. Justice Michael Kirby’s attentiveness to judicial process and articulated awareness of leading questions cannot itself ameliorate the fact that he is drawing from a body of narratives that have already been coherently expressed.

As with Shin, the narratives that appear the smoothest and most credible may ultimately prove to be the most in need of re-narration—not for the sake of making them more objectively “true” and thus useful for activism, but for the sake of prompting their tellers to co-create with us life stories that are first of all personally meaningful to them, set free from the lingering constraints of initial interrogations and the horizons of our political symbolism and utility calculus.

Hearing Better: The New Activism | Re-narrations like Shin’s are only problematic to the degree that we (mis)construe them as compromising credibility rather than reflecting a reality of healthy life story development, especially in those who have experienced severe trauma. Mr. Shin is now finally useful as a human rights advocate because his story can prompt us to understand, acknowledge, and accept this and thus fundamentally change the way we hear, and write, and in every way act to co-create the life stories of North Korean defectors. With Shin the activist exposed as a fiction, we can stop creating fiction by genuinely hearing the stories of North Korean defectors as men and women.

On this matter, research on life story is conclusive and clear: The idea of the “objective” hearer who records the “true” account of the teller without distortion is a myth. As Tennyson’s Ulysses puts it, “I am a part of all that I have met.” Our desires, goals, preferences, and needs influence deeply how we hear every story that is told to us, and thus, unavoidably, it influences every teller.

Therefore, we who hear North Korean defectors share their stories must ask ourselves: What are we listening for? If we are listening for human rights documentation, religious testimonies, or iconic tales that sway public opinion, we will fictionalize every North Korean narrative we hear. No life story is a case study if authentically heard. But if we discipline and train ourselves to listen in order simply to help North Korean tellers understand their own lives and find meaning and purpose in their stories for their own sakes, we can co-create truly authentic narratives. Authentic stories for activism come from what we overhear, not from what we aim to hear.

If all of this sounds impractical or naive, it is likely no more so than believing than Shin’s re-narration will be the exception, not the rule. Not only narrative theory but the practical experiences of anyone who has worked with North Korean defector life story narration for some time would suggest otherwise. Life story narrative simply does not emerge fully formed, especially from trauma sufferers. There is no straight-line, short-term process to getting the story right or getting the right story. There is only the hard, time-consuming work of relationship that teaches us to hear constructively, yet without preconception.

More authentic life stories require more time for healing, more authentic relationships that are purposeless in the best sense of the word, more thorough knowledge of North Korea and North Korean narrative, more understanding of narrative structures and how they operate, more authentic ways of hearing (i.e., ones that replace panic and shame-shaped narratives with new hearings that do not demand continuity with past tellings), more empathy for North Korean defectors as sufferers of trauma, and a greater commitment to North Korean defectors as men and women than as political symbols.

If as Stanton says there is no man who is above the truth, then neither is there a life story “truer” than the relationship that co-creates it.

* Eric Foley is the CEO of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, a Seoul-based NGO that partners with underground North Korean Christians and North Korean defectors in Christian ministry initiatives to reach North Koreans wherever they are found. The author of These are the Generations, the life story of third generation underground North Korean Christians, Foley is committed to enabling North Korean defectors to narrate their lives fully in South Korea. He recently completed his doctorate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio on the subject of North Korean defectors’ life story narratives and their impact on defectors’ assessments of meaning in life.

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