He was among the most famous refugees of our time, softly spoken, often with a shy smile: Shin Dong-hyuk, the thus far only survivor of one of the most notorious labour camps in North Korea. He was celebrated by human rights organisations and current and past politicians alike, the latter including John Kerry and George W. Bush. His story, made into a book by journalist Blaine Harden in 2012 under the title Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West sold millions of copies and was translated into 27 languages. It tells of cruel episodes that include informing the camp authorities about escape plans by his mother and brother – which led to their death and did not bring him hoped for privileges in the camp but torture.
A few days ago then came the admission that Shin Dong-hyuk had been economical with the truth, starting with the fact that most of his time was not spend in camp 14, but in the more lenient camp 18, and only after two attempts to flee was he put into camp 14. He defended his actions by saying he was still being traumatized by many past events and had created for himself a ‘truth’ to live with. Fair enough at a personal level and it is certainly not my intention to condemn somebody who no doubt was tortured, has the marks on his body to show for it, and is bound to suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
What is more interesting for me is how the wider human rights lobby has jumped on his story and promoted it as the visible face of crimes against humanity by the North-Korean regime and beyond, without too many questions asked or at least an attempt to corroborate the story they were told. This of course is partly related to the fact that for any theme to remain in the public eye and receive media attention, ideally one can produce an iconic figure, an individual we the public can relate to and feel empathy with. At the same time, such a focus on the incomprehensible suffering of an individual acts to silence criticism of any kind, or any effort to obtain a more nuanced understanding – and in turn plays into the political agendas of those who thrive on dividing the world into good and evil, and advocate decisive actions against those regarded as evil. This results far too often in a state of affairs where a saintly image of defending human rights and/or humanitarian principles is being propagated while at the same time individuals like Shin Dong-hyuk are being paraded like puppets at a fun fair in order to receive donations and publicity. Already Stalin reputedly knew (even if it is not quite clear whether ‘his’ famous quote can actually be attributed to him): One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic. And we are moved not by statistics, but by clear moral narratives that ultimately solicit empathy. In line with those dynamics, North Korea has come to symbolize a quasi prototype of ‘criminal political regimes’ more generally, visible for example in its un-reflected use for other settings I have commented on in relation to Eritrea as the ‘North Korea of Africa’ elsewhere.
This brings me to a past example of ‘evil’, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s. At the same time when doubts about Shin Dong-hyuk’s story emerged, an event took place at the Academy of Arts in Berlin in relation to the 40th anniversary of the coming to power of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (the actual ‘anniversary’ is on 17 April 2015). It was a discussion entitled ‘Ideology and Error. The Khmer Rouge and the Left’ (Ideologie und Irrtum. Die Roten Khmer und die Linke in the original), accompanied by the opening of an exhibition in which contemporary Cambodian artists try to come to terms with the country’s brutal past. The discussion centred on the support the Khmer Rouge originally received from large parts of the European Left in the then bipolar world, where ‘progressive’ politics for many meant the often unconditional support of any ‘revolutionary’ Third World movement. On one hand a lot of mea culpa was on display for having failed to recognise the murderous character of the Khmer Rouge regime from the start. And it took Michael Sontheimer, a well-known German journalist and historian, to put things into a more balanced perspective: He drew attention to the fact that the German Defence Ministry and Foreign Ministry combined had recently agreed to fund a Professorship for Governance and International Security in honour of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger at the University of Bonn, the man who ordered the indiscriminate bombing of parts of Cambodia at the time of the Vietnam war (a bombing that arguably helped create the Khmer Rouge takeover of power). Maybe there are more relevant themes to discuss in relation to the Khmer Rouge than the misguided solidarity of sections of the then Left, themes that make us question this simple narrative of bad and evil and look at our responsibility for the past in a new light.
The exhibition by Cambodian artists picks up those dynamics in a quite powerful way. A work called Bomb Ponds by Vandy Rattana consists of a series of photographs of ponds full of water, all created by American B-52 bombers and the bombs they dropped more than forty years ago. Accompanying the photographs is a 21-minute video in which people who live around those ponds tell their stories. They remember when the bombs fell, how they pulled their dead mothers, aunts, sisters from the debris, they explain how the water in the ponds is still too poisonous for human consumption but is sometimes being used by cattle – and they have posed the same question for 40-odd years: Why did the Americans bomb us? They never received an answer that makes sense to them, their communities, and how their lives were determined and marked from then onwards. Most learned to live in an environment where roughly every twenty metres a bomb pond has restructured the landscape, others have moved ‘away from here to the mountains, because to see these ponds every day makes me cry’.
What then might we learn from these – on the face of it unrelated examples – that nevertheless have similar underlying dynamics in common, not least the attempt to write history in light of a sort of ‘superior Western morality’?
Be sceptical! Look behind the obvious! Distrust all too neat narratives no matter who propagates them!
As academics, we might not be best placed to change the world we live in – but at least we can help shed light on those who abuse others – whether motivated by greed, power, altruism or narcissism – and in doing so show some form of solidarity with a common humanity.
The website to the exhibition at the Berlin Academy of Arts is: http://www.adk.de/de/programm/aktuell/index.htm?we_objectID=34022