Life in North Korea has never been the same since the Kim family established their reign in 1948. Today, the country has sharply declined into a totalitarian Stalinist state with generations afraid to think for themselves or question their ‘Supreme’ leader.
For Yeonmi Park, this was a reality. A beautiful girl born to a country that suppressed her every human right, she grew up without the knowledge of freedom, without the ability to use electricity past a certain hour, and without a basic understanding of the meaning of dignity.
At 22 years old, Yeonmi is now the token North Korean defector, speaking out against the country and bringing awareness to the situation through her internationally acclaimed memoir, In Order to Live.
So how does a young girl go from searching for a bowl of rice to standing on the global stage fighting for her people’s right to live? MiLLENNiAL met with Yeonmi in New York City to learn about her harrowing tale and how we, as a society, can help the people of North Korea reclaim their freedom.
The Undesirable Truth of a Forgotten Land
The western world can never comprehend what it is like to live under the reign of the Kim Dynasty. Living conditions are “unimaginable” according to Yeonmi. “It’s like the horrors of a concentration camp…there is no concept of freedom of speech,” she tells us.
Trying to put it into perspective, she says, “When I was young, I looked to the stars to predict the weather. We don’t have 24-hour electricity, we don’t have celebrated culture, we don’t have sports, we don’t have hobbies – people are just busy surviving.”
She explains that the idea of freedom is a foreign concept to those trapped in the country and one that seems undeserving. “I never knew the words freedom or human rights when I was in North Korea.”
The people of North Korea legitimately believe the Kim family to be deities. Yeonmi claims, “I believed [Kim Jong Il] was a god. I thought he could read my mind.” Reassuringly, Yeonmi informs us that the younger generations are decreasing their loyalty to the party, but says she was raised devoted to the idea that she would die for her leader.
Nonetheless, North Korea remains a communist state with a food crisis on its hands. While North Korea’s food resources are the highest they’ve been in over a decade, the price has considerably increased, making it more difficult for the average citizen to eat. “I didn’t escape for freedom. I escaped for a bowl of rice,” Yeonmi says quietly.
Most families turn to the black market to buy and sell goods to afford their meals. Yeonmi’s father was one such person. When caught buying and selling silver on the black market to pay for his family’s wellbeing, he was accused of starting a business – a crime against the people – and was imprisoned for such treason.
As a result, Yeonmi’s family became outcasts. Faced with isolation and famine, Yeonmi’s sister, Eunmi, decided to become the first in their family to flee to China. A few days later, Yeonmi and her mother followed that brave decision and also left North Korea.
From One Trap to Another: Hiding in China
China and North Korea have maintained diplomatic relations over the years with China’s loyalty favoring North Korea’s political powers. “The Chinese government doesn’t accept us as North Korean refugees and they don’t protect us. So if they catch us they will send us back to North Korea… If you are sent back, you face death.”
Accepting their fate, Yeonmi and her family joined the rare few that annually seek a better life, and crossed the Yalu River into China in 2007. But due to the high risk of being caught and sent back, they willingly sold themselves into the sex trade to hide in the shadows of Chinese life. Sadly, Yeonmi and her mother weren’t able to find Eunmi for the next seven years.
“It’s the only way you can survive in China. If you are being sold by human traffickers you find shelter and food,” Yeonmi says with sadness. She adds that she was sold for $200 and her mother for $65. “[There is] a lot of tragedy in the 21st century with people being sold for less than an iPhone because they were born in North Korea. But no one talks about it.”
It is estimated that 20-30 million people are currently a part of the global slave trade, and in China, the most common trafficking involves North Korean women who are lured into prostitution in order to escape the hardships of their country.
Growing up faster than any girl should, Yeonmi and her mother decided it was time to make their way to South Korea after two years hiding in China. Together with eight others, they walked across the freezing Gobi desert to Mongolia. “We had a compass with us,” but fearing they would be caught due to the light emitted, “we followed the northern stars,” she says. “We were afraid that the police in Mongolia were going to send us back to North Korea so we brought poison and razors with us and were going to threaten to kill ourselves there.”
To their surprise, the government decided to help them and after a few months in a Mongolian detention center, Yeonmi and her mother were sent to South Korea. By the time they made it to Seoul, her father was dead and her sister was still missing, but they were finally free.
Understanding freedom in South Korea
From ages 15 to 21, Yeonmi attended school in South Korea. There she learned English, completed her GED, and attended university. The experience was quite different for her since she only had three years of formal education in North Korea. She tells us that she learned to be a social person in South Korea, and thanks to her teachers, began to appreciate life.
The Trip that Changed Yeonmi Park’s Life
In October of 2014, Yeonmi was selected by the One Young World (OYW) conference to become a delegate speaker. Yeonmi’s friend had heard the OYW council was looking for a millennial defector from North Korea to give a speech at their conference in Dublin. Encouraged to apply, Yeonmi was chosen to be a speaker after a series of interviews.
“That was the first time I shared my story on the international global stage,” she says, “I didn’t know what was coming.”
Yeonmi was immediately offered a book deal and went to work formally writing her story. She moved to New York City in November of 2014 and is currently a student at Columbia University. “I never knew I would end up in New York,” she proudly states.
Fighting for North Korean Freedom
Now on the international speaking circuit, Yeonmi is using her story as a catalyst for change in North Korea. “There are millions of people being forgotten,” she says.
Her solution for getting more North Koreans out is by putting pressure on China. She pleads an open message to the People’s Republic, “Let us go through to South Korea. I’m not asking for food, I’m asking to let me go through.” Adding that the refugees should be less vulnerable to rejection.
While only a few are able to make it out of North Korea, Yeonmi tells us reassuringly, “Young people emerging are experiencing the black market system. They know what’s trading and they do get access to the outside world from China.”
Interestingly, what is on their black market is not what most would expect. Rather, the most valued item is information. Yeonmi stresses to those learning about the situation to help “free people’s minds, stop China’s evil policy towards defectors,” and to ask our global leaders to acknowledge and stand up for this issue.
Against all odds, Yeonmi Park proves to be the 21st century North Korean version of Joan of Arc, tasked with being a voice for the voiceless. Through her incomparable journey, she proves fighting for freedom and your right to live with dignity is worth more than any currency.
With the help of those that believe in her mission, Yeonmi may just get a little closer to freeing 25 million people.