Giving Back to Southeast Asia

I was very fortunate to be able to take time off and travel for 202 days in Southeast Asia in 2015-2016 — mostly in countries where the dollar stretches pretty far because of the disparity in wealth between the country where I happened to be born and the places I was visiting. I decided to give back, in a small way, by pledging a certain amount of money to charity for each day I spent in each country.

Thailand: 72 days

Because I spent the most days in Thailand, I split my donation between two charities.

My closest Thai friend was, like many Thais, reverent toward the royal family. I have my own outsider opinions about all that, but I respect my friend and her values for her own country. The Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, under royal patronage, provides emergency shelter, health services, vocational training, and many other services to women in Thailand.

 The SET Foundation gives scholarships to those in need, with the unique principle of supporting students for a full twelve years, from elementary through collegiate studies, rather than just for a semester or two.

Malaysia: 11 days

As you travel Malaysia, it’s hard not to notice the oil palms: acres and acres of them, a giant monoculture dominating the landscape. I didn’t visit Malaysian Borneo on my trip, but I went there recently, and I discovered the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which helps orangutans who’ve lost their mothers to recover and prepare for reintegration into the wild. Malaysia’s unique wildlife is precious and under threat — the oil palm plantations are pressing in, and the lumber industry wants what trees are left — but places like the Sepilok Centre have the potential to drive up the economic value of conservation and diversify the local economy by bringing tourism. And in the meantime, the preservation and restoration work they do is saving unique animals in a unique environment.

Vietnam: 44 days

I met my friend Christina Bui in Myanmar through a chain of travel connections, and ran into her again in Saigon and Hanoi. She works at Pacific Links Foundation, which helps to protect people in Vietnam from human trafficking — being forced into factory work, domestic work, and the like — and empowers women and communities in Vietnam. Slavery is bad and Christina is good, so this was a pretty easy choice.

Myanmar: 23 days

Yangon is a time capsule. Decades of misrule have had the perverse effect of preserving the older part of the city much as it was under British colonial rule. Yangon Heritage Trust is working to preserve and restore the city’s remarkable architecture before it all gets torn down and turned into KFCs, and I hope they succeed in making Yangon the gem of a city that it deserves to be, like today’s Hoi An or Penang but on a much larger scale. (Nothing specific against KFC, by the way. I threw up in the bathroom of the Yangon KFC and they were very polite about it.)

Cambodia: 8 days

Cambodia is rife with terrible NGOs and scammy voluntourism projects, so I wanted to find an organization with a good rating on Charity Navigator, and Cambodia Children’s Fund has that. They take “a holistic, family-based approach” to childhood education, which is sorely needed in this poor and damaged country. They recognize that there are root problems like hunger and violence that can undermine education, so they try to deal with all of these issues as they help young people get the schooling they need and deserve.

Laos: 23 days

Perhaps the most dangerous thing I did in Southeast Asia was go for a walk in Laos.

Laos has more unexploded ordnance (UXO) per capita than anywhere else on earth, a sorry result of a decade of American bombing during the Vietnam War. On a tour of the Plain of Jars, on a trail that was supposed to be cleared, my guide suddenly jumped back and pointed. “That’s a cluster bomb detonator.” He then told me how his brother died: he’d gone fishing and was cooking up his catch in a rice field when the heat triggered an old pineapple bomb that took his head off.

I split my Laos donations between two organizations that deal with the ongoing disaster my country left behind. COPE gives people their lives back by providing prosthetics and rehabilitation to UXO survivors and others with mobility-related disabilities, while the Mine Awareness Group (MAG) works to demine Laos (and other places) and educate the local people about how to avoid UXO accidents, thereby reducing COPE’s potential clientele. I saw both organizations at work in Laos, and at one point even had to stop driving while MAG blew up some UXO they’d found in a field — a field that, when cleared, could provide food and income to a Laotian family.

Indonesia: 18 days

Yayasan Usaha Mulia (YUM) – Foundation for Noble Work has been around a long time and does holistic community work focused on education and alleviating poverty. Finding a good charity in Indonesia — especially one that wasn’t religiously based — was a bit difficult, but YUM seems to have a decent track record.

Singapore: 3 days

For Singapore, I cheated. Singapore is a wealthy country, so there’s not a tremendous need to give there. Instead, I donated to Singapore-based Choson Exchange, an innovative NGO that supports North Koreans with hands-on entrepreneurship training, helping to create an ownership culture and a better standard of living for North Koreans. I’ve met the founder and some of the team, and they’re passionate but not naive about what they’re up against. I admire what they do and wish them success.

The Korean Situation

I’m scared. I’ll admit it.

I don’t think anything is about to happen, and I have reasons for that. South Korea is going about its business as if everything is normal, because what the hell else can we do? But it’s unnerving to have talk of fire and fury directed at the place you live. I’ve started thinking about what I’d do if I had to leave.

Setting aside the rhetoric, though, it doesn’t appear that either the United States or North Korea is preparing for an actual war. The US has sent some planes our way, but that’s about it. No carrier group, no calling up of reservists like before the Gulf War and the Iraq War, no massive movement of troops or materiel. Soldiers in Korea and Guam are still in their barracks. (For what it’s worth, moving any great number of troops into South Korea would require at least the tacit approval of the government here, which has a pretty serious stake in not getting its country destroyed.)

On the North Korean side, I haven’t seen any reports of big troop movements: no tanks massing by the DMZ, no large-scale mustering, no panic in Pyongyang.

The biggest sign to look for — and there’s no hint of it — is a move to begin evacuating American citizens. There are well over a hundred thousand of us here, including diplomats and their families, and the US is likely to want to move us out of the way before doing anything big. So for the moment, at least, nothing big seems to be planned.

But it’s the small and unplanned that scares me. A planned large-scale war is something Trump’s generals are very unlikely to encourage, but I worry that our president might order a missile strike on impulse, without waiting for our military to be ready for North Korea’s response. What that response would be, we can’t know. It could be anything from total silence to a strike at Guam to a massive bombardment of Seoul.

 

I don’t think any of this is likely, mind you. But it’s not pleasant to consider the odds, or to keep hoping that something serious happens somewhere else in the world to distract the president. I hope this passes soon, and we can all move on with our lives.

Imaginary Lines

Much of what we think of as the real world is actually collective dreaming. Money, laws, social mores, nation states don’t exist in any absolute sense; they’re not real the way rocks and trees and gravity are real. They’re shared agreements that could evaporate in an instant, and sometimes do.

Confronted by a national border, we are suddenly reminded how arbitrary our shared agreements are: the money in my pocket can be exchanged for goods on this side of the imaginary line, but not that side; I can relax here in the shade of this tree, but if I try to rest in the shade of that tree over there, armed men will stop me unless I go through a particular ritual involving specially prepared documents.

The DMZ — the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea — is an especially arbitrary border, the result of hasty decisions at the close of World War II and a military stalemate in 1953. It’s also the site of a bitter struggle between competing collective dreams, where each side has been preparing for 64 years for the other side to wake up and adopt the worldview of its opponent.

Dorasan Station

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A full-day tour of the DMZ begins at Dorasan Station, the northernmost point on the South Korean railway system and a monument to a South Korean dream of unification. The fully functional station has been used exactly once, for a test run into North Korea during a thaw in relations. It sits waiting for the moment when rail service to points north becomes possible. You have to buy a ticket to go to the platform. On the way in, I noticed a South Korean tap his paper ticket to the top of the turnstile, the way you do with your digital transit card in an operational South Korean train station. Nothing happened. Nothing ever happens here.

The Third Tunnel

For all that borders and nation states are imaginary, certain things are all too real: the landmines that make the DMZ impassable, and the tunnels the North Koreans dug at various points in attempts to infiltrate into South Korea. We visited the Third Tunnel because it’s the closest to Panmunjom. Surreally, you enter the tunnel in a little open train that feels like a kiddie ride at an amusement park.

Like everything else along the DMZ, the tunnels are the subject of a propaganda war. The North Koreans first claimed they had nothing to do with the tunnel — discovered by the South Koreans in 1978 because of underground explosions — then later claimed it was a coal mining operation, though the walls are obviously granite and the odds of finding coal in such a location are exactly zero.

Outside the tunnel, big letters spelling out DMZ are a kitschy place to take a photo, while a statue of young people pushing a divided world back together unfortunately made me think of Humpty Dumpty.

In a small garden at the edge of the compound, you could hear music drifting in on the breeze: South Korean propaganda being blasted at the North. This audio war, in which the North and South played music and taunting messages at ever increasing volume, had fallen into an armistice during the period of the Sunshine Policy, but the South started it up again a couple of years ago in response to some North Korean provocation or other, and now any North or South Koreans close enough to the border are subject to the whimsical musical choices of whatever South Korean colonel is in charge. On this particular day, I caught a bit of an old pop tune from 1994. (Thank you, Shazam.)

Looking down

From the tunnel, you continue on to Dorasan Observatory, where you can finally peer down on North Korea itself and see its enormous flagpole — once the highest in the world — which was built to overtop a South Korean flagpole. There’s a village down there that US officials say is empty and always has been: a Potemkin village that would be more laughable if we hadn’t just visited South Korea’s Potemkin train station. And you can see out to Kaesong, the industrial complex that was once the site of South Korean businesses operating in North Korea but is now shuttered.

There’s a line of mounted binoculars at Dorasan Observatory, and for 500 won you can take a closer look at the mysterious country beyond. I managed to catch sight of some fieldworkers — most clad in white, a few on the edges in gray, maybe supervisors or guards or who knows what. There was a frisson to seeing actual North Koreans, like spotting a rare animal on safari, and also a kind of sickening feeling about such voyeurism. It’s true that I’ve taken photos of poor peasant farmers in Laos and Myanmar without feeling particularly weird about it, but at least those folks could engage with me if they had wanted to. I was looking down on North Koreans who had no way of looking back.

Human beings

A DMZ tour isn’t really about North Koreans as human beings. At no point did any of our tour guides, South Korean or American, mention North Korea’s awful human rights record or the recurring famines that continue to torment the North Korean people. One way the DMZ works as an imaginary space is by turning North Koreans from individuals into representatives of their state: Bob the soldier, or tiny little dots in the distance seen from Dorasan, or anonymous tunnel diggers. But I know about all these things. I have friends who grew up on the other side of that border, and I know some of the hardships they endured, some of the traumas they still carry with them.

Perhaps that’s why the most affecting moment of the tour, for me, was a brief stopover after lunch, at a kitschy little tourist trap in Paju, close to the border. There we saw the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners of war were exchanged and had the option of choosing one or the other Korea to stay in. To consider the bridge was to think about the individuals crossing it, the reasons they had for choosing one side or the other and the sacrifices this must have entailed. We also learned about a shrine where people with North Korean roots come to do ancestor worship on the major Korean festivals, when all the other Koreans are heading to their hometowns. The thought of those people cut off from their roots was ineffably sad, and it made me think of the Book of Lamentations and the suffering of Jews in exile who could no longer reach their beloved Jerusalem.

Panmunjom

The highlight of the tour was our visit to the Panmunjom Truce Village. South Koreans aren’t allowed to join this part of the tour, and it’s frankly weird that anyone else can go there. We switched from our tour bus to a different bus, leaving our bags behind, and now we were under the care of a young American infantryman with a pistol prominently at his side.

The truce village itself isn’t much to look at, just some military buildings and some sheds in the middle, but everything is formal and tense. First we were given an introductory slideshow, narrated by our American soldier. We learned about the incident in which North Koreans hacked to death with axes two Americans who were trying to cut down a tree that blocked their view. We learned of a firefight that broke out in the 1980s when a Soviet journalist bolted for the South Korean side. We learned that the North Koreans never give the South Koreans or the US any information about what they plan to do, but that the South Koreans announce the day’s schedule and activities through a bullhorn each day to try to minimize the chances of any incidents.

Then, as we marched out into the open, we were told not to stop for anything, not even to tie our shoes, and not to try to signal to the North Koreans in any way. We stood outside for a bit, gazing across at a lone North Korean soldier standing in front of their rather formal building. The Americans call him Bob because he likes to bob in and out of the columns when the tourists come. South Korean soldiers stood around here and there, facing both north and south, motionless and intense in their taekwondo stances. (Their shifts are three-and-a-half hours.)

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Finally we had our turn to go inside the conference room. The American cheerfully said, “You’re in North Korea! You’re in North Korea!” as people began crossing the dividing line at the center of the room. Also in North Korea were two more of those motionless North Korean guards, there to prevent anyone from doing anything interesting. We stayed there for a few minutes, then filed out again.

Self-defense

Once we’d departed the truce village, I asked the American soldier about his life in Korea. He’s never been able to go down to Seoul, but sometimes he goes drinking in the nearest South Korean village. (Villagers near the border get free land and exemptions from taxes and military service, but you have to have North Korean roots to get the deal, and you also have to be back in your village before dark each night.)

He also said that being a tour guide made him the laughingstock of the infantry. “I got buddies who’re going to Syria, to Iraq, to Afghanistan,” he said. “At least they can defend themselves.” Then he paused. “I probably shouldn’t say anything.”

I wondered what he meant by that. Are American troops at the DMZ supposed to retreat or surrender if fighting breaks out? Maybe. I think the US would rather lose a few soldiers as prisoners and have time to negotiate or calculate a response rather than have an escalating military engagement in which North Korean soldiers are killed or wounded. This is probably not much fun for the US troops involved to contemplate, but it makes sense.

Back to our reality

And then, with one final visit to a gift shop, our tour came to an end. You can buy I Heart DMZ merchandize, which has a certain absurdist charm. I bought an armband like the ones the South Korean soldiers wear.

Then we rode the bus back down to Seoul, and my friends and I headed for Hongdae and its Saturday Night crowds. We ate barbecue and bingsu, watched buskers, bought some swanky new clothes at Aland. Some rampant capitalist indulgence felt good after a day spent contemplating one of the least compelling alternatives ever devised. But it also felt a little less real, a little more imaginary than usual. 

The Korea Situation

Here on the Korean Peninsula, something big is happening and everyone knows it. What was once a stable regime now has an uncertain future. You see signs of the political changes everywhere.

Literal signs.

I’m talking, of course, about the South Korean election, which is the most significant thing happening here, at least from the perspective of most South Koreans. There are election signs everywhere!

Why, what you you thinking?

Nothing has changed

I’m aware that for better or worse (mostly worse), I’m the Korea expert for a lot of people I know. My credentials extend as far as a couple semesters of politics courses focused on the region plus a few years in a minor role in the South Korean government a decade ago, plus I read things and I live here. So read on with that in mind.

So yeah, the North Korea nuclear thing.

North Korea has nukes and has had them for a while. North Korea has missiles and has had them for a while. North Korea is developing longer-range missiles and has been developing them for a while. There’s nothing happening this week that’s substantively different from what was happening six weeks ago when no one was talking about North Korea. North Korea has had the ability to nuke Tokyo for maybe a decade, and we’ve lived with it, just as we live with Pakistan having both nuclear weapons and a very serious Islamist insurgent problem.

Tensions are high, but the US is going to great lengths to signal that we’re not going to war. The secretary of state and vice president assured South Korea that the US wouldn’t launch an attack without Seoul’s approval, which is not likely to be forthcoming. There’s zero panic in South Korea, and no real reported panic in North Korea either.

We’ve been here before. We’ll probably be here again. As it goes on, ignore right-wing cranks who insist that this is the red-line moment and that the situation demands action now. Ignore left-wing cranks who insist that this is all American provocation and North Korea is just misunderstood. None of that is true. North Korea’s regime is brutal and murderous, with a horrific human rights record. They just killed a guy in a Malaysian airport. They’re not nice. They’re also not nuking anyone next week. And the best solution to the situation is not outright war, just as you don’t resolve a hostage situation by blowing up the whole neighborhood (well, maybe Russia does).

So take a deep breath. If you’re American, calm down and keep protesting the president for the actual awful things he’s doing. If you’re South Korean, make sure to vote in the upcoming election. And if you’re president of a nearby country, please see if you can avoid starting a war.

 

Don’t Visit North Korea

Vientiane, Laos

Yes, it’s possible to visit North Korea. No, you shouldn’t do it.

As the horrifying case of Otto Warmbier unfolds, it’s clear that North Korea is interested in taking American hostages. Warmbier has been sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster in his hotel room.

It’s unclear whether Warmbier will ever serve that sentence, but if he does, he will not be alone in the labor camps. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are there already, in the conditions that upset us so much when we consider an American being sent there, and often for reasons as stupid and paltry.

Visits to North Korea are not really visits to North Korea. They’re visits to a performance of North Korea, staged by the government. Your money for your visit goes to the government. It sustains the same government that is destroying Otto Warmbier’s life without remorse as part of its power games. The same government that holds out the promise of family reunions, only to withdraw at the last moment, toying with the hearts of its own citizens. The same government that has kidnapped teenagers from Japanese beaches. The same government that the UN found has committed human rights abuses “without parallel in the contemporary world.”

If you have a real reason to go to North Korea, like the volunteers at Choson Exchange, then go. Otherwise, don’t.

I realize that by posting this, I am disqualifying myself from going to North Korea. I shouldn’t go. You shouldn’t either. It’s not safe, and it’s not right to support the regime. We are only pawns in their game.

Helping Resettled North Koreans to Succeed

I am raising funds for Liberty in North Korea’s empowerment programs. These programs are a lifeline to North Koreans who have escaped their oppressive regime, but now need to make a new life on the outside. They don’t have the networks of family and friends that we take for granted — they left those things behind.

But we can help. I am hoping to raise $1000 by the time I leave for Asia on October 28. (You won’t see my donation because I already have a standing commitment to Liberty in North Korea’s general fund.)

Please donate. You can make a difference on one of the world’s toughest issues!

Ms. Lee on Mr. Shin

Recently I wrote about the troubling case of North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk, who admitted to giving inaccurate accounts of his life in North Korea.

Now defector and advocate Hyeonseo Lee has written about Shin in the New York Times. With eloquence and far more personal, direct insight than I could ever provide, she’s made some of the same points I wanted to get across. Here’s the heart of it:

This unfolding saga is troubling to me and to other defectors who tell the truth about the horrors of life in the North. The furor over Mr. Shin’s confession is really a sideshow, a distraction from the larger issue: Pyongyang’s continuous abuse of human rights.

Mr. Shin has been examined by doctors who believe he was subjected to torture and child labor, given the evidence of his scars and unnaturally bowed arms. We shouldn’t lose sight of that when discussing his lies.

It’s easy to see how Mr. Shin was tempted to obscure the truth. For defectors, sometimes doing so is the only way to survive.

Beyond that, she talks about the hardships and challenges North Koreans face when they arrive in South Korea, and the need to give them with greater support, which organizations like Liberty in North Korea work to provide.

There are many reasons North Korean defectors lie, as Lee notes. But at its heart, the issue remains the North Korean regime and its human rights abuses, not the personal foibles and mistakes of some of its victims.

Ms. Lee on Mr. Shin

Recently I wrote about the troubling case of North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk, who admitted to giving inaccurate accounts of his life in North Korea.

Now defector and advocate Hyeonseo Lee has written about Shin in the New York Times. With eloquence and far more personal, direct insight than I could ever provide, she’s made some of the same points I wanted to get across. Here’s the heart of it:

This unfolding saga is troubling to me and to other defectors who tell the truth about the horrors of life in the North. The furor over Mr. Shin’s confession is really a sideshow, a distraction from the larger issue: Pyongyang’s continuous abuse of human rights.

Mr. Shin has been examined by doctors who believe he was subjected to torture and child labor, given the evidence of his scars and unnaturally bowed arms. We shouldn’t lose sight of that when discussing his lies.

It’s easy to see how Mr. Shin was tempted to obscure the truth. For defectors, sometimes doing so is the only way to survive.

Beyond that, she talks about the hardships and challenges North Koreans face when they arrive in South Korea, and the need to give them with greater support, which organizations like Liberty in North Korea work to provide.

There are many reasons North Korean defectors lie, as Lee notes. But at its heart, the issue remains the North Korean regime and its human rights abuses, not the personal foibles and mistakes of some of its victims.

The price of a chat

When Obama came to power, he made clear that he was willing to sit down and talk with the leadership of pretty much any country, including several that we have long considered enemies and threats. It’s a good principle. Conflict is expensive and talk is cheap. What harm could there be in at least keeping the lines of discussion open?

Except that talk is not always cheap. When South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met with Kim Jong-il in 2000, the price South Korea paid for the privilege was $500 million. Further meetings have come with escalating costs. North Korea tried to get $10 billion in cash plus aid from President Lee Myung-bak in exchange for a meeting.

There’s a tendency on the South Korean left to see the conflict with North Korea as perpetuated by the South Korean right and the United States. If only the United States and South Korea would talk to North Korean leaders directly, instead of threatening them with isolation and sanctions and military might, the thinking goes, we could achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula.

This line of thinking made a certain amount of sense in the 1990s, during the Sunshine Policy era. The world’s communist regimes were either collapsing or transforming. The cold war was over. South Korea too was undergoing a profound political shift, from right-wing military dictatorship to left-wing democracy. President Kim Dae-jung was right to try a new approach to an old and serious problem.

It didn’t work.

The North Korean regime, it turned out, was pocketing the money it got from summits while continuing with unacceptable behavior, particularly its nuclear program. The regime has kept itself alive however it can, playing regional powers against each other, dealing in meth and missile parts, oppressing its citizens.

So when North Korea begins to talk about talking, we should look carefully to see whether they’re arriving hat in hand. Are they looking for a dialogue, or are they just looking for a handout? Considering how little has been gained from past talks with North Korea, neither South Korea nor the United States should buy what Pyongyang is selling. Let Pyongyang deliver some sample goods first — a constructive conversation of any sort at all, really — before South Korea spends more money on empty words.

North Korean defectors and the truth

North Korean defector and human rights activist Shin Dong-hyuk has recanted some of his testimony. He has admitted that aspects of the story he has told and retold about his experiences of torture and imprisonment in North Korea were wrong. Much of the testimony of defector Yeonmi Park has also been called into question.

It’s easy to see telling the truth in black and white terms: you say what’s so, or else you’re lying. But memory and truth-telling are not so simple. Before you judge Shin and Park — and certainly before you decide that all North Korean defector testimony is suspect — it’s worth looking a little more deeply into how we tell our own stories and what it means to tell the truth.

Learning to tell the truth

We assume that our concept of the truth is universal and inborn. It’s not. As Americans, we learn from a young age the importance of telling the truth, even if it’s a truth no one wants to hear or that might have negative consequences for us. That’s what the story of George Washington and the cherry tree is about. We also spend decades in school learning critical thinking skills, embedding us in a particular theory of truth where things are considered more true when we footnote our sources, read closely, show our work in math class.

North Koreans have none of that. Suki Kim has written about the difficulty of assigning her North Korean students to write essays: “Writing inevitably consisted of an endless repetition of [Kim Jong Il’s] achievements, none of which was ever verified, since they lacked the concept of backing up a claim with evidence.” She is speaking here of the intellectual elite among North Koreans. Someone like Shin Dong-hyuk, raised in North Korean prison camps, would have even less capacity for critical thinking, for sorting fact from fiction.

We also tend to imagine as universal our ideas that the truth is something independent and separate from us, and that there is moral value in knowing and admitting that independent truth, regardless of the consequences. North Koreans are raised in a culture where speaking or even knowing certain truths is dangerous.

But no one ever tells North Koreans, “Do not speak the following truths or facts.” Instead, the very concept of what is true is altered: what is true is what can be spoken, and what can be spoken is what is true. North Koreans are not trained to consider sources, whether their own empirical experience or otherwise. What’s true is what everyone says is true. That doesn’t mean truth is static or that new truths can’t ever emerge — even truths that go against the government line — but rather that truth value is increased by perceived consensus and undermined by the sense that no one else is saying the same thing.

Memory and politics

Now imagine North Koreans arriving in South Korea. They spend an initial period in isolation, being debriefed by intelligence officers (incidentally, in what one defector described as the most luxurious accommodations she’d ever experienced). They are being asked by officials in their new homeland to recall details from years or decades earlier, from their childhoods. They have no access to maps, to Wikipedia, to family photos. They can’t ask their parents what really happened. They are being asked to reconstruct everything, but memory is notoriously slippery. Events move out of order, they shift and change. (This happens to Westerners too: in my research on Korean shamanism, my main informant has had to modify her story several times, and there are certain incidents that other informants remember differently.)

Then these defectors enter South Korean society, where the political spectrum offers two main ways of thinking about North Korea. The left — still traumatized by the old right-wing dictatorship’s habit of calling every democracy protestor a North Korean spy — sees North Korea as unfairly maligned and threatened. They believe that South Korean and American militarism and provocation perpetuate the status quo on the peninsula, keeping the right in power and keeping North Korea defensive and isolated. They imagine that unilateral moves by South Korea, and especially the removal of US troops, would bring about a substantive shift in North Korea. The right sees North Korea as an unreliable negotiating partner and an ongoing military threat. They see North Korea as exacerbating tensions to manipulate the surrounding powers and perpetuate their regime, and they see the left as hopelessly naive. They also see North Korean defectors as suspect, potentially spies sent by the North Koreans to cause problems in the south.

Most North Korean defectors choose to live quietly, without engaging in political action. But for those who feel compelled to do something about the homeland and people they left behind, they must find their way within these competing narratives. The right is far more receptive to defectors than the left, and the right rewards stories that show how bad the North Korean regime is. Internationally too, stories of suffering and deprivation are good capital. They’re what we want to hear about North Korea.

But there’s more to it than that. North Korean defectors are trying to piece together coherent narratives from fragments of memory. When they arrive in the free world, they are bombarded with information they could never have accessed: satellite images of places they had mapped differently in their minds, Wikipedia entries that clarify the dates of events they remember in different order, competing accounts from other defectors that call into question particular memories. Defectors’ stories change because they are struggling to understand what is actually true and how to express it. Yeonmi Park, for example, has responded to criticisms of her changing accounts:

Much of the time, there was miscommunication because of a language barrier. I have only learned English in the last year or so, and I’m trying hard to improve every day to be a better advocate for my people. I apologize for any misunderstandings. For example, I never said that I saw executions in Hyesan. My friends’ mother was executed in a small city in central North Korea where my mother still has relatives (which is why I don’t want to name it) … Also, I apologize that there have been times when my childhood memories were not perfect, like how long my father was sentenced to prison. Now I am checking with my mom and others to correct everything.

What’s told and what’s true

So does all this mean that we can’t believe North Korean defectors?

No. What it means is that we should be careful not to take any one personal narrative as the solid, documented, verified truth. Each defector is a human being. Some human beings are more honest than others, some have better memories. Some, like Shin Dong-hyuk, keep secrets.

We should also be careful not to trust critiques too quickly. The Diplomat got a number of its facts wrong in trying to show that Yeonmi Park got her facts wrong. Nor are defectors the only ones with political agendas. Soft-pedaling North Korea’s human rights record — saying it’s not as bad as has been reported, holding up the human rights shortcomings of other nations in comparison — serves particular agendas.

What we can trust is the weight of testimony from hundreds or thousands of defectors. For example, the UN report on North Korean human rights violations relied on the testimony of 80 witnesses. When defector after defector describes the harrowing conditions of detention and torture in similar terms, it becomes less important whether this one was tortured at age 13 or age 20, whether that one saw an execution in one town or another.

What matters is that defector after defector talks about fear, imprisonment, starvation, beatings, executions. These are not fantasies, and they’re not a grand plot by South Korea’s intelligence services, and they’re not a trick of the American military-industrial complex to keep Northeast Asia in a state of war. We can see satellite images of prison camps. We can see the scars on Shin Dong-hyuk’s body.