March 2, 2015 / 9:24 PM / in 3 years

Fame for North Korean defectors brings money, suspicion

SEOUL (Reuters) - Kang Myung-do, then son-in-law of North Korea’s premier, made a spectacular claim about Pyongyang’s nuclear capability when he defected to the South over two decades ago, asserting the secretive country had built five atomic bombs.

Human rights activist and North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk poses for photographs after an interview with Reuters in central Seoul in this February 16, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Files

His testimony at a news conference in 1994 came 12 years before North Korea conducted its first nuclear test and, like many allegations about the country, was never proven. Asked last week about its veracity, Kang told Reuters he was sharing the information he had at the time.

Now 56, Kang appears on a news show on one of four different South Korean TV stations every day, earning 100,000 won ($90) each time, a beneficiary of the proliferation of TV channels and lectures that has created a small class of celebrity North Korean defectors - as well as the temptation to embellish.

“I think broadcasters that are sometimes being pushy on people is one of the problems,” said Kang, who earns a further 500,000 won appearing on a weekly entertainment talk show with fellow defectors. “There are too many people on TV titled ‘Kim Il Sung’s doctor’, which I don’t think is true,” he said, referring to North Korea’s founder.

Testimony from North Korean defectors has come under renewed scrutiny since one of the most high-profile among them, Shin Dong-hyuk, recanted parts of his harrowing story, made famous in the book “Escape from Camp 14” by former Washington Post correspondent Blaine Harden.

Many among the 27,000 defectors from the North in South Korea worry that embellishing stories compromises the credibility of the community and undermines human rights advocacy efforts.

Kim Young-soon, a survivor of North Korea’s Yodok prison, the notorious Camp 15, said entertainment-focused shows on TV sometimes lack empathy for defectors. Some defectors embellish, exaggerate or trade their stories for money, she and other defectors said. Many demand to be paid for news interviews.

“I don’t blame these TV shows because they are telling people about North Korea and providing critical insight. But I hate it when they make North Korea look like a place where only weird animals live,” Kim said.

Most North Korean memoirs and testimonies cannot be independently verified given the country’s isolation. Instead, stories are compared for consistency.

A lack of opportunity for defectors, many of them marginalized in South Korea, can make selling stories to TV an attractive sideline, although most members of the community keep a low profile, often to avoid creating problems for family members still in the North.

Defectors earn two-thirds the South Korean average but work longer and are three times more likely to be in temporary jobs, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

Shin splits the royalties on “Escape from Camp 14” evenly with Harden. He told Reuters that he had not had the courage to tell the entire truth about his experiences earlier because his memories of torture by prison guards and other confessions were too painful. Shin, who has given testimony to the United Nations, said until two years ago he had little money and is now supported by his wife and contributions from individuals.

LOVE AND DANGER

Five South Korean TV channels were launched in 2011, creating openings for dozens of ex-North Koreans to share stories ranging from death-defying escapes to news on the ruling Kim dynasty.

There is also entertainment. “Love Unification: Southern Man, Northern Woman,” features fictional marriages between South Korean male celebrities and real North Korean defectors. The title plays on a Korean proverb that the South is home to handsome men and the North to beautiful women.

Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean military official who defected to the South in 1979, says he has three regular segments on different news shows, earning between 150,000 and 500,000 won each time, and also comments when there is news on North Korea.

Ahn, who said most of his family died in the Yodok prison camp, refuses requests to appear on entertainment shows.

“You can be a crook or be asked to lie. I have seen so many people lying and making mistakes on camera ... People only care about spicy stories,” he said, using English for “spicy”.

VERIFICATION LOOPHOLE

When he defected in 1994, Kang worked for a trading firm selling cars from Japan to China to raise funds for North Korean founder Kim Il Sung’s office. He fled to the South while on a business trip in China, leaving his family behind.

Now married for the second time, Kang seems at home in front of the camera, where he speaks on issues ranging from leader Kim Jong Un’s square-cut hairstyle to his own colorful story.

He acknowledges that there is a verification loophole when it comes to defectors’ stories from the North.

“I have seen many people fired after their inconsistent stories. Look at Shin Dong-hyuk. It is embarrassing,” said Kang.

Additional reporting by Sohee Kim; Editing by Tony Munroe and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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