North Korean defector's account of life in gulag still stands, depite distortions: Author

SEOUL (AFP) - A crippling mix of "trauma, torture and shame" led high-profile defector Shin Dong Hyuk to distort his harrowing account of life in a North Korean gulag, according to the book's author.

In a new foreword to the best-selling Escape From Camp 14, Blaine Harden warned that still more revisions may be necessary, but argued that the core narrative remained a credible indictment of North Korea's institutional "depravity". "It is not fiction. It is journalism and history built around one young man's memory, as refracted through a collapsed scheme to hide from trauma, torture, and shame," Harden wrote in the foreword posted on his website on Sunday.

First published in 2012 and translated into 27 languages, Escape From Camp 14 helped make Mr Shin a virtual poster boy for the defector-activist community, as he gave speeches around the world, penned editorials and picked up awards. The US-based Human Rights Watch described him as the world's "single strongest voice on atrocities taking place in North Korea".

But the same defector community was rocked last month when Mr Shin admitted that elements of his account of gulag life, including numerous dates and chronologies, were untrue. Most glaringly, perhaps, he revealed that most of his childhood was not spent in Camp 14 at all, but inside the neighbouring - and marginally less savagely run - Camp 18.

But he stressed that crucial details of his suffering and torture still stood - a stance Harden supported in his new foreword.

Highlighting the multiple scars on Mr Shin's body that are consistent with extreme torture, Harden noted that the memories of trauma victims are often fragmented and out of sequence.

"Raised in a dysfunctional family in a secret prison, badly educated, and tortured, he is a flawed eyewitness to the savagery of the world's last totalitarian state," Harden wrote.

Seizing on Mr Shin's admissions, North Korea argued that they invalidated the findings of a United Nations commission, which Mr Shin testified before and which concluded that the North was committing human rights violations "without parallel in the contemporary world".

The chairman of the commission responded that Mr Shin was only one of 300 interviewed witnesses who provided a mass of "overwhelming" corroborative evidence.

After the news of his inaccuracies broke, Mr Shin admitted that the damage to his credibility might preclude him from pursuing his activist career.

However, in a post on his Facebook page on Sunday - apparently timed to coincide with Harden's new foreword - Mr Shin suggested he would continue.

"The important thing is that the North Korean regime sees that I will not quit or surrender," he wrote.