The centrality of lying as the art of survival in Orwellian North Korea

Hyeonseo Lee’s … status was threatened when her ailing stepfather committed suicide by taking an overdose of Valium. The Kim regime views suicide as a kind of jailbreak; it responds by punishing a dead citizen’s children. They can be reclassified as “hostile,” which denies them access to universities and limits job prospects.

Hyeonseo Lee with her mother in North Korea.
Hyeonseo Lee with her mother in North Korea.

The suicide jolted Lee’s mother into a family-saving frenzy of payoffs. “She had to get the hospital documentation changed very quickly, and this was a delicate and difficult task, but our futures depended on it,” Lee writes. “It cost her nearly all her hard-currency savings, but she did it. She bribed the hospital authorities. They agreed to change the cause of my father’s death to ‘heart attack.’ ” The family’s honor was saved. Lee’s mother was free to resume her career of peddling methamphetamine and smuggling goods from China.

If there’s one truth to be gleaned [from the flurry of memoirs from North Korea], it is about the centrality of lying. Along with bribery and privation, snitching and fear, lies are a coin of the Kim realm. North Koreans lie to survive; they lie to escape. This, of course, raises a question: Do they tell the truth in their memoirs?

For me, as the author of two books about North Korean defectors, it is a haunting issue. Shin Dong-Hyuk, the subject of my 2012 book, “Escape From Camp 14,” misled me for seven years about some details of his life in North Korea’s gulag. When I asked him why he had done it, he said the complete truth was simply too painful. He chose to tell me (and human rights groups and U.N. investigators) an expurgated story, which he wore as body armor for life in the free world. It protected him from trauma he was unwilling to relive. It hid behavior he was ashamed to disclose. He had no idea, he said, that the precise details of his life would ever be considered important.

Shin’s experience in North Korea was particularly gruesome. His body is covered with scars from repeated torture. He’s stunted from malnutrition. As a young teen, he betrayed his mother and brother, causing their execution. Psychologists agree that victims of such severe trauma almost always tell stories that are fragmented, self-protective and intermittently untrue. Some skepticism, then, is probably in order for readers coming fresh to memoirs about North Korea. But for what it’s worth, I believe these books. They are consistent with a recent U.N. investigation that found overwhelming evidence that crimes against humanity are being committed in North Korea.


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