Rushing to judgment on a defector (The Korea Times, 12/17/14) by Casey Lartigue, Jr.

By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
Have you ever read an article that you knew was wrong or incomplete based on your inside knowledge? That was the case as I read a 3,000-word commentary by reporter Mary Ann Jolley challenging statements by North Korean refugee Park Yeon-mi.

Jolley questioned if Park had really witnessed the execution of a friend's mother for watching a Hollywood movie, in Hyesan, North Korea. Jolley quoted North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov who questioned the likelihood of the account, as well as an unnamed 59-year-old refugee from Hyesan who "laughed" that such a thing had happened there.

The problem? Park didn't say the execution occurred in Hyesan. I know this because since last April I have recorded hours of detailed interviews with Park to help document her story. Park was born in Hyesan and later lived in Pyongyang, but moved to the countryside after her father was imprisoned. Because of a sensitive family security issue, Park has avoided mentioning the exact location of the execution publicly (she told me the location months ago in a recorded interview).

An investigative reporter writing a balanced article without a tight deadline might have recognized that missing details before questioning Lankov and others, but there are deeper issues than simple errors in a hit piece. How many sensitive details that could put others at risk must refugees reveal? How much should critics reasonably be allowed to challenge refugees, knowing a watchful psychotic regime up north is eager to punish "traitors" like Park?

How many embarrassing personal details must North Korean refugees reveal in snippets of interviews and speeches? Jolley even questions details about the burial of Park's father, but I know the story better than she does. Out of money, options and hope, with her father dying of cancer in China, Park and her mother agreed to be sold to a Chinese farmer. Park has mentioned such stories in speeches and interviews and sought to raise awareness without "sensationalizing" being sold in China.

Park hasn't discussed it publicly, so I will only briefly mention the "aunt" who brokered the deal and the Chinese man who purchased Park as his daughter and her mom as his wife; he also agreed to dispose of the body of Park's father upon his death. Jolley didn't know about the purchase of Park and her mother, and other important details, which is why her 3,000-word attack couldn't help but be incomplete, at best.

When Jolley gets things half-right, she concludes the worst about Park. She cites an exchange during our podcast "North Korea Today, featuring Casey and Yeonmi." We had been invited to do a special live podcast in front of an audience at an exhibition about North Korean street children. Park wanted to avoid overshadowing the street children feature with her own story.

Jolley twists this to even question if Park had ever eaten grass or dragonflies because she didn't mention it then. We did a separate podcast in which Park talked in detail about eating dragonflies, wild boar, grasshoppers, and sparrows when she was in North Korea.

Jolley clearly missed or ignored that, as well as many other things, in her well-researched article of dots she (understandably so, sometimes) misconnected. In July, Jolley flew into Seoul with a camera, interviewed Park and people around her (including me), then flew out with a big part of the story, but not the sensitive parts that Park wasn't then prepared to discuss on camera.

Unexpectedly emerging as a public figure without a manager and in a language she is still learning, Park has struggled with how to tell the rest of her often embarrassing story while maintaining security and family privacy. It will fall on deaf ears in this instant-news age, but my suggestion: please wait for Park to tell the rest of her story.

Most refugees change their names, are paranoid about their photos being posted publicly and live in terror of being identified by the regime. Some of Jolley's anonymous refugee sources fear reprisal over a simple article. Park uses her real name, courageously speaks out against the regime, and reveals many personal details that get more scrutinized than presidential executive orders.

Conspiracy theorists, North Korean regime sympathizers, and the usual skeptical researchers and disgruntled bloggers are parsing her every word in her third, and only recently learned, language. Park, 21, has been targeted by the North Korean regime and warned by South Korean law enforcement she is putting her family at risk.

Park's critics have even come after me. More than a month before the world learned it, Park told me in a recorded interview about her mother being raped in China. Despite the opportunity for fame and fortune, I didn't take the opportunities to reveal her sensitive information. I will keep Park's security and privacy issues in mind, but I can in good conscience break my silence and respond to critics with attacks full of half-truths and incomplete information.

The writer is director for international relations at Freedom Factory Co. in Seoul, and the Asia Outreach Fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu. The views and opinions expressed in the above article are entirely those of the author and do not in any way reflect the thoughts and perspectives of staff at The Korea Times. — ED.