At 20 years old, Yeonmi Park is thankful for her life. Addressing the crowd at the Women in the World London Summit today, she exclaimed, “I’m free, we’re all free!” But life for the North Korean defector has not always been so bright.
She was born into relative privilege, but her father was arrested in the oppressive country known as the Hermit Kingdom. Yeonmi Park remembers that while growing up, she was always hungry. “I starved for a long time before I escaped,” she said.
North Koreans, she said, were being brainwashed by the regime to believe that they were living in the greatest country on earth — but they were barely surviving. There was famine and disease, untreatable in underfunded hospitals. Park said she had never learned words for “love” or “liberty,” and she didn’t understand the concept of critical thinking. Her math problems, for example, were based on destroying “American bastards” (“If you have four American bastards, and you kill two…”). Living without reliable running water or electricity made China’s lights burn brighter for her. Both figuratively and literally, she explained, “North Korea is the darkest place on Earth.”
As a child, Park was convinced that Kim Jong-il, then the Korean leader, could read her private thoughts. “We [were] not allowed to express love for each other, only love for the regime,” Park said. Speaking to Chief International Correspondent Lyse Doucet of the BBC, she said, “Many people ask me ‘how are you not messed up, after all of that?’ [But] I don’t think of myself as a victim.”
In 2007, Park fled with her mother to China. There she saw her mother raped by traffickers, she said, and they were both sold into marriage – her mother for $65 dollars, she for $260 – and lived through the horrors of sexual slavery. At one point, she was forced to sell her own mother to a farmer, to ensure that she would have a better life – “someone who could feed her better,” Park said. She learned quickly that the life that she had found outside of North Korea was still not fair or humane.
“When I was in China, someone told me if you go to South Korea, you will be free. It was the first time I had heard that word, ‘free’.”
At 15, she crossed the Gobi Desert on foot with her mother, following the Northern stars through Mongolia, and finally reached South Korea. Immediately, she noticed the fashions young women were sporting — wearing earrings and jeans, for which they would have been severely punished or executed in the North, she said. Everything felt rich — even toilet paper at the airport, which had flower prints on it and smelled good. “It was so pretty! So I wrapped it and I stole the paper,” she laughed.
Upon her arrival in South Korea, Park had only a second-grade education and became a self-described “learning machine.” “I never knew what Africa was, what Canada was,” she explained. She read as much as possible, and has since learned that humans have been to the moon, and about the universe and human evolution. Park loves the book 1984 by George Orwell because she believes it describes her experiences living under North Korea’s watchful eye.
Now she attends university in South Korea, but Park still fears Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s current leader. “To me, he’s not a joke,” she said through tears. His weight, his haircut — both subject to ridicule in the West — aren’t important, she said. “He’s killing,” she cried, “And [the outside world] is a paradise, this is heaven.” The world needs to learn that he is not a joke, she added.
Still traumatized from the brainwashing of her youth, Park is learning to be free. “In my dreams, I’m still in North Korea,” she said.
But she’ll keep telling her story, no matter what. “The dictator is strong, but not stronger than the truth.”