Survivor story

Five surprising facts about North Korean defector Yeonmi Park

We dived into the 21-year-old human rights activist’s new memoir, “In Order to Live”, and compiled a fun primer to honor Yeonmi Park’s youth and resilience

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As a child in North Korea, Yeonmi Park knew nothing of the outside world and was taught to hate the regime’s enemies. © Yeonmi Park

Yeonmi Park’s survival has always depended on her carnivorous will to live.

She was born in 1993 in Hyesan, North Korea, under one of the world’s most repressive regimes and in the height of a nationwide famine. Doctors told her mother, Keum Sook Byeon, “She might live or she might die.” She chose life, and would be forced to do so time and time again on her journey to become the 21-year-old human rights activist she is today.

Her new memoir, In Order to Live, details the trials that brought the once-brainwashed defector to freedom. Park’s family suffered under the rule of Kim Jong-Il, who came to power when his father died a year after her birth. State-controlled media was their only form of information, so she knew nothing of the outside world and was taught to hate the regime’s enemies, especially the United States. Her only concept of “love” was developed in regard to the nation’s “Dear Leader.” North Korea was dark — electricity was rarely reliable — and cold. The distraction of hunger permeated almost every scene of her childhood. Even Park’s most private thoughts were not safe from a deep paranoia instilled by the government’s obsessive, controlling rule. “Remember, Yeonmi-ya,” her mother would say, “even when you think you’re alone, the birds and mice can hear you whisper.”

Her father was sent to a prison labor camp as punishment for smuggling metal,  and, at eight years old, Park was left alone with her sister Eunmi, to fend for themselves while their mother sought his release. The pair learned to survive on bugs and plants, but nearly starved to death before Keum Sook Byeon returned.

In 2007, at 13, Park and her mother followed by crossing the Yalu river dividing the two countries. She was trafficked and witnessed unimaginable horrors. With help from missionaries, she and her mother escaped through the Gobi Desert then eventually to South Korea, where they received citizenship.

Park has since gone on to study at Dongguk University in Seoul. Because she actively shares her story of escape, North Korea’s newest leader, Kim Jong Un, doesn’t like her very much. In anticipation for her appearance at Women in the World’s London Summit on October 9, we have put together a few fast facts from In Order to Live – a fun primer to honor Yeonmi Park’s youth and resilience.

1) The film ‘Titanic’ changed her worldview
Growing up, state-run content was all Park knew — she ingested no popular media whatsoever. Even when families were able to afford radios and televisions, they came pre-programmed to regime-approved channels. It “never occurred” to her that her life could ever be different, until she was about seven or eight years old, when she was introduced to Titanic’s Jack and Rose on a bootleg tape at her uncle’s house.

“It amazed me that it was a story that took place a hundred years ago. Those people living in 1912 had better technology than most North Koreans! But mostly I couldn’t believe how someone could make a movie out of such a shameful love story. … [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.”

2) On government order, she was forced to fill a waste (read: poop) quota
A shortage of fertilizer caused huge problems in North Korea, and faults in the transportation system made distributing donations from foreign countries impossible. The government’s solution? Collecting human and animal waste. We’ll let Park take it from here.

“Every member of the household had a daily assignment, so when we got up in the morning, it was like a war. My aunts were the most competitive. ‘Remember to not poop in school!’ my aunt Kowon told me every day. ‘Wait to do it here!’

The big effort to collect waste peaked in January, so it could be ready for the growing season. Our bathrooms in North Korea were usually far away from the house, so you had to be careful that the neighbors didn’t steal from you at night. Some people would lock up their outhouses to keep the poop thieves away. At school the teachers would send us out into the streets to find poop and carry it back to class. So if we saw a dog pooping in the street, it was like gold.”

3) Throughout her perilous journey, she was most scared crossing the Gobi Desert
It was cold and quiet in the desert on the night Park and her mother made their way from China, following the stars on their way to freedom from where they’d been trafficked. After a life spent brainwashed, it was also the first time that she thought negatively about North Korea’s leader, Kim Jung Il.

“As the hours went on, it got colder and colder, and I started doubting that any of us would make it. I thought about dying out here in the desert. Would anyone find my bones or mark my grave? Or would I be lost and forgotten, as if I had never existed? To realize I was completely alone in this world was the scariest thing I’ve felt in my life, and the saddest.

I also started hating the dictator Kim Jon Il that night. I hadn’t thought that much about it before, but now I blamed him for our suffering. I finally allowed myself to think bad thoughts about him because even if he could read my mind, I was probably going to die out here anyway. What could he do, kill me again? But even in the face of death, betraying the Dear Leader was probably the hardest thing I had ever done.”

4) Once exposed to literature, reading became one of her great passions
In South Korea, Park devoured books with great appetite. She started with translations of children’s books, then biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, and Fredrick Douglass. She developed a deep love for Shakespeare and connected with George Orwell’s 1984 on a level most American readers would not fully understand – it was as if Orwell knew where she was from and what she had been through.

“I read to fill my mind and to block out the bad memories. But I found that as I read more, my thoughts were getting deeper, my vision wider, and my emotions less shallow. The vocabulary in South Korea was so much richer than the one I had known, and when you have more words to describe the world, you increase your ability to think. In North Korea, the regime doesn’t want you to think, and they hate subtlety. …

I started to realize that you can’t really grow and learn unless you have a language to grow within. I could literally feel my brain coming to life, as if new pathways were firing up in places that had been dark and barren. Reading was teaching me what it meant to be alive, to be human.”

5) She learned English with a little help from her ‘Friends’

Park’s learning curve was steep – she only had a second grade education when she arrived in South Korea. Earning her GED was a huge challenge – especially because she didn’t fully understand the idea of “justice” and the idea that hard work could be rewarded. Park turned to tutors for help learning English, but received help from a few familiar American faces.

“When I wasn’t reading or studying with my tutors, I listened to English audiobooks and TED talks – even in my sleep. I downloaded all ten seasons of the American TV comedy ‘Friends’. Ask me anything about Ross and Rachel, and I can tell you. The only drawback, as far as my tutors were concerned, was that I was developing an American accent and speaking in 1980s slang.”

Learn more about Yeonmi Park and her new book, ‘In Order to Live’, at the Women in the World Summit in London on October 9.

Follow Alli Maloney on Twitter

Related:

“Kim Jong Un doesn’t like me at all,” says 21-year-old defector from North Korea

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