By Elizabeth Kershteyn
Throughout her childhood she was starving. At 9 years old, her father was sent to a reeducation labor camp. At 13 years old, she escaped her country and was sold into slavery. At 16 years old, she finally reached freedom. These are only a few facts from the incredible life of Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector and human rights activist.
After living for some time in South Korea and the United States, Yeonmi decided to shed some light on the lives of people in North Korea and her struggle and sacrifice-filled journey to freedom. In her book In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, Yeonmi attempts to answer the questions that a lot of Westerners have about North Korea: how bad is life there? What do North Koreans know about the outside world? Why are they obsessed with the Supreme Leader? Why do they not rebel? Why don’t they just escape?
Foreign media and entertainment, which we Americans are so used to watching all the time, is banned in North Korea. However, not even the strictest dictatorship can oversee everything, and so a lot of Western movies and TV shows are smuggled into North Korea. Yeonmi claims that the movie that changed her worldview was Titanic (directed by James Cameron). She writes: “… I couldn’t believe how someone could make a movie out of such a shameful love story. In North Korea, the filmmakers would have been executed. No real human stories were allowed, nothing but propaganda about the Leader. But in Titanic, the characters talked about love and humanity. I was amazed that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were. The idea that people could choose their own destinies fascinated me. This pirated Hollywood movie gave me my first small taste of freedom.”
Yeonmi claims that the word “love” in North Korea is only used in regards to the leader. It’s not possible to love your family, neighbor, or friend. Love can only be expressed towards the dear leader. One might think that having access to the foreign media would open North Korean’s eyes to their horrible conditions by giving them something to compare their life to. However, Yeonmi claims that North Koreans think in a special way. She calls such phenomenon “doublethink,” a term she borrowed from George Orwell’s book 1984. She writes, “It is how you can recite the motto ‘Children Are King’ in school, then walk home past the orphanage where children with bloated bellies stare at you with hungry eyes.”
According to Yeonmi, life for the majority of North Koreans is a constant struggle against starvation. When the Soviet Union collapsed, North Korea lost its major ally and supporter. As a result, there was a huge famine in the 1990s. Yeonmi describes the extremely disturbing reality: “The frozen babies that starving mothers abandoned in the alleys did not fit into my worldview, so I couldn’t process what I saw. It was normal to see bodies in the trash heaps, bodies floating in the river, normal to just walk by and do nothing when a stranger cried for help.” Yeonmi and her family had to use anything to survive, and surprisingly, the hardest time of the year for them was spring. She was shocked to find out that in the West, spring is considered the time of life and reborn. In North Korea spring is the time of death: “It is the time of year when our stores of food are gone, but the farms produce nothing to eat because new crops are just being planted. Spring is when most people died of starvation. My sister and I often heard the adults who saw dead bodies on the street make clucking noises and say, “It’s too bad they couldn’t hold until summer.”
Another life changing moment in Yeonmi’s life happened when the government allowed people to sell their products at the marketplace called jangmadang. At 11 years old, Yeonmi had to help her parents to earn money. She would bribe the guard of the state-owned orchard with a rice vodka and then sell the fruits she picked at one of the markets. Yeonmi explains how the private market helped her develop a sense of freedom: “Once you start trading for yourself, you start thinking for yourself. Before the public distribution system collapsed, the government alone decided who would survive and who would starve. The markets took away the government’s control. My small market transactions made me realize that I had some control over my own fate. It gave me another taste of freedom.”
With all the poverty and desperation taking place, some North Koreans are willing to risk their lives and flee their homeland. Most of them are either trying to escape hunger or political persecution. On March 31, 2007, Yeonmi Park and her mother crossed the frozen Yalu river and got to China. But they didn’t reach their freedom. For most North Koreans, escaping to China means living in fear that they will be captured and sent back home to face death and torture.
The defectors are not the only ones getting punished: up to three generations of family members will be chastised for the sins of their relatives including a lower social status, labor camp sentence, or even death. Upon arrival to China, Yeonmi and her mother were sold into slavery. Her mother was sold to Chinese farmers. According to Yeonmi, there is a huge shortage of brides in China due to a one-child policy whereby parents were only allowed to have one child due to overpopulation concerns. Many parents opted to abort their unborn daughters for a chance to have a boy resulting in a huge deficit in females. Thus, North Korean brides, though illegal, are in high demand because they are unable to run away in fear of getting arrested.
In the book, Yeonmi describes her experiences in China and shares the struggles she and her mother had to go through to achieve freedom. Eventually they came across Christian missionary groups that helped them to get to South Korea, where she decided to write her book: “It’s an odd thing for someone who has just turned twenty-one to be writing the story of her life, especially someone with a secret she has been trying to hide for years. But as soon as I began writing my memories down, I knew that I could no longer hold anything back. How could I ask people to face the truth about North Korea, to face the truth about what happens to the women who escape into China and fall into the hands of brokers and rapists, if I couldn’t face it myself?”
Yeonmi Park’s story gives us only a glimpse of one of many stories of North Koreans who are desperate for a decent life. With all that she had to go through, Yeonmi considers herself to be very lucky. According to her, most North Koreans who try to escape simply don’t make it. Her journey is filled with miracles and a determination to live; she kept going In Order to Live.
To learn more about Yeonmi Park’s activism and the situation in North Korea, you can visit her YouTube channel – Voice of North Korea by Yeonmi Park: