You were born in the same year as I, with just 8 months and 173 miles between us on the Korean peninsula. 173 miles made all the difference in our experiences, opportunities, and communities. I was born in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea. Your entry into the world began at the political prison and labor camp Kaechon Gulag No. 14, South Pyongan, North Korea. There, you grew up in an environment of total control by prison guards, fending for scraps of food and fearing for your life. These are the basic facts of your childhood.
I recently read in the news that you apologized sincerely for altering some details about your life story. And so I have something to tell you.
I am glad you are here.
Your community of supporters will not stop listening to you because you changed minor details of traumatic events as you remembered them. I do not know why you changed them. Perhaps you felt compelled to continue with the first or eighth or 200th version of your autobiographical account. Maybe you wished it had been as you stated. Perhaps you felt that people don’t care enough and might listen if something especially egregious were included in your story. Possibly, you simply mis-remembered.
But whatever the reason, it does not by default falsify the rest of your experiences.
By coming out with this news, you have only increased our respect for you for several reasons. The first is that we now think more fully about the constant pressure that you are under to make the issue of North Korean gulags worthy of international attention and action. The second is that you had the courage to potentially lose credibility by being honest – in the ultimate irony – yet, you chose to do so anyway. Thirdly, you risked being abandoned and isolated by the world. Maybe truth enables you to have a better relationship with yourself – I hope that it does, and that you respect yourself as much as ever. You have already been through disabling torture and faced death – you did not have to invite criticism, but you wanted your story to reflect reality even if it meant losing some support for yourself and your cause. Fourthly, you are correct in showing images of your scars, because they are no less real because of a detail that was untrue in your story. The scars on your body and soul are still real. Your experience is still valid.
You did the right thing.
The regime that is embarrassed by your speaking out is going to continue trying to convince you and the world that you are guilty; that you are a bad person. Above all, do not believe them. They have a political stake in your isolation, and have since the beginning of your life. They will use tactics to discredit you, just as some nonprofits or other groups might use tactics to credit you. However, between the political strategies and arguments, there is simply you: standing as a human being. So please remember that you deserve the same things that all humans deserve: the liberties, civil rights, and space to voice your thoughts and feelings without being attacked for doing so. This international imbroglio is simply not your fault.
If you had been born free in Seoul, we might have gone to pre-school together. We might have played and laughed, and when we grew up you would have been stressed out from studying for college entrance exams, instead of dodging the end of a rifle while you snuck onto trains to cross a border, alone and scared. Your life belongs to you, and you shared painful memories with the world despite the heavy responsibility that comes with visibility and attention. And so, as you now stand up to intimidation from detractors, you play a more important role in world history than ever before.
신동혁씨, 우리가 항상 함께한다는 사실을 잊지 마세요.
And Mr. Shin, don’t forget that we are always with you.
Love and best wishes,
Jee Jee Kim, Hyun Kwak, and the ARC community