The story of a story

13 May

According to Wall Street Journal blogger Jeyup S. Kwaak:

When Shin Dong-hyuk published his first-hand memoir of a life spent entirely inside a North Korean concentration camp in 2007, it garnered little attention in South Korea.

Then last year, Mr. Shin’s story of brutality inside the North Korean gulag gained global notoriety after “Escape from Camp 14,” a new account written by journalist Blaine Harden, became a bestseller (

OK, I can see how a professional journalist’s rendering of Shin’s story might be more artful, in terms of storytelling and other literary presentation. Still, it’s striking that we need a certain presentation in order to pay attention to the brutal fact of North Korea’s labor camps, which fellow survivor Kang Chol-Hwan describes as “like Hitler’s Auschwitz concentration camp, [although] not as large and there is a difference in the way people are killed. Hitler gassed people, Kim Jong Il sucked the life out of people through starvation and forced labor” (

And this bias for a story well-told (entertaining, intentionally suspenseful or whatever we’re looking for in a recital of abuse and terror) has, it would seem, an impact beyond who gets access to an international audience.

Consider Harden’s raison d’être for retelling Shin’s story: “I think Mr. Shin’s story is a very powerful way of waking people up. It won’t change the camps, but knowing about them, empathizing with the daily misery of what’s going on inside the camps is better than not knowing what’s going on.”

To summarize: Harden wanted to raise awareness.

Now consider why Shin originally wrote his memoir. According to Shin, he was “see[ing] commercials on TV about helping African children. But those born in North Korean political prisons are also children that need help.” What does Shin mean by “help”? He means awareness that leads to action. He means intervention and rescue. And since there has been neither to date, he has “argued that South Korea should be put on trial next to the North Korean regime for turning a blind eye, should the International Criminal Court decide to preside over the case.” Shin isn’t content to settle for “empathizing with the daily misery” inside the camps. He believes we need to stop it.

So it seems to me that it matters who gets to tell a story because they’re not just telling it, they’re selling it. And they get to use their narrative authority to tell us how that story matters and what our role in it can–and should–be.

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