February 16, 2015 / 10:30 AM / 3 years ago

North Korean escapee accepts blame for hurting defectors' credibility

Human rights activist Shin Dong-hyuk speaks during a Reuters interview in Washington in this December 19, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/Files

SEOUL (Reuters) - A North Korean prison camp survivor central to a U.N. campaign against Pyongyang’s rights abuses accepted on Monday that changing parts of his story had tarnished the credibility of defectors from the country.

Shin Dong-hyuk, who shot to international fame with the publication of “Escape from Camp 14” by former Washington Post correspondent Blaine Harden in 2012, last month recanted key elements of his account of torture and subsequent escape from a North Korean prison camp.

“Of course there’s been damage,” Shin told Reuters in his first multimedia interview since he admitted his story was not entirely truthful. “And I know a lot of people are criticizing me. But I did not have a choice.”

In official propaganda, North Korea has blasted Shin as a liar and a criminal.

Shin, in his early 30s, is one of the best known defectors from the North and a key witness to the U.N. inquiry that issued an indictment of the North’s rights abuses last year, leading to a U.N. resolution urging the referral of Pyongyang to an international criminal tribunal.

Shin said he made a conscious decision in 2006 to omit parts of his story that he wanted to forget and hide.

He said he had not had the courage to tell the full truth because his memories of torture by prison guards and confessions that led to the execution of his mother and brother were too painful.

“I have heard all of the criticism, and I know I will continue to receive criticism,” he said. “And it was so hard because of that, and that’s why I thought about taking my own life.”

Shin now says he escaped twice from Camp 18, the second time making it to China where he was captured and sent back to the North, and to Camp 14, a much harsher facility, where he suffered painful torture. He then says he escaped from Camp 14.

In his original account, he said he had lived all his life in Camp 14 until his escape.

“Torture using fire was bearable, now I that I look back. But what I could not bear was pulling out the fingernails,” Shin said in the interview.

North Korea is one of the most secretive places in the world and it is extremely difficult to verify the accounts of defectors. Shin’s admission last month led to concern in the defector community in South Korea that their credibility had been damaged.

About 25,000 defectors from North Korea live in the South.

Shin, who married recently and said he lives modestly in Seoul, also said he wants to renew fighting for improvement in rights conditions in North Korea, including taking part in any future trip by U.N. investigators to the North.

“I have to be included, because the people who lived through the suffering know best.”

Harden, in an updated foreword to his book, said at the weekend the new disclosures may still not be the whole truth of Shin’s story.

“It seems prudent to expect more revisions,” Harden said in the foreword he posted on his blog and will be printed in future editions of the book.

Shin said: “There will be no more changes. Even if there’s something I am keeping to myself, I won’t be changing anything now ... the whole truth will come out when history proves everything about the pain suffered by the North Korean people.”

Editing by Tony Munroe and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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