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August 14 2018

Yeonmi Park

by Charlotte Hays

"I am most grateful for two things: that I was born in North Korea, and that I escaped from North Korea," defector and activist Yeonmi Park writes in her harrowing autobiography, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom.

Yeonmi was a half-starved thirteen year old who weighed only sixty pounds in 2007 when she was smuggled across the frozen Yalu River from North Korea into China. Adding to her woes, once on the Chinese side, Yeonmi and her mother learned that those altruistic smugglers who led them on the treacherous journey across the border were actually human traffickers.

It is hardly surprising that Yeonmi and her mother were not wise to the ways of the world. They had lived their entire lives up until that night in a repressive regime that is so cut off from the rest of the world that we know it as the hermit kingdom. Constant surveillance was a way of life. So was hunger.

Another feature of life was unblinking loyalty to the Kim family, which has ruled North Korea for three generations. As a nine-month old baby, Yeonmi was strapped onto her mother's back so they could go to the square and participate in passionate public mourning on the death of the current dictator's grandfather, founder of the dynasty, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. The grief was real. Many North Koreans, including Yeonmi's mother, had believed that the Great Leader, as Kim Il Sung was known, was immortal. Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011 after the death of his father, Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il. 

Although the punishments for watching contraband Hollywood movies could be death, at the age of seven or eight, Yeonmi and her relatives gathered, covered the windows and watched the movie Titanic. It was a life changing experience. She was fascinated that the characters portrayed by Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to take risks for love rather than being wholly dedicated to their government. 

"There was a complete blackout of information from the outside world," Yeonmi, now an activist and new mother living in New York, told IWF. "There is no internet in North Korea. I did not even know the word internet.  And the people cannot leave the country. There is no freedom of movement.  There is no outside information coming in. You see, that’s how [the ruling Kim family] keeps the population ignorant."

She continued, "I did not know that I was in an isolated country.  I did not know that I was a slave.  So, when you don’t know you are a slave, how do you demand freedom? But that does not mean that I was happy because I was very hungry and oppressed. Even though I did not know that it was injustice, I was very desperate and scared all the time. The first thing my mom told me was not to whisper because the birds and mice could hear me." Yeonmi grew up believing that Dear Leader could read her thoughts.

Yeonmi grew up in Hyesan, a city of 200,000 in the coldest part of North Korea, right across the Yalu from the Chinese town of Changbai, home to many ethnic North Koreans. When Yeonmi went to the river to fill buckets with water, she could smell the delicious food being cooked a short distance away in China. She could also see the fireworks the lit up the skies for the Chinese New Year celebrations across the river. Hyesan was considerably grimmer. Electricity was so rare that, when it came on, people danced and sang.

North Korea was always a desperately poor country under the Kims but, when the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union and other communist states were less able to prop up North Korea, and things became even more desperate. North Korea has a population of 25 million and it is estimated that 18 million are undernourished. Yeonmi and her friends killed mice in the fields and then dug up their nests, looking for a few prized grains of food to supplement their own diets.

The world got a glimpse at how desperate the food situation is in North Korea last year when a soldier defected by running across the border, under a hail of bullets, into South Korea. Soldiers, especially those stationed near the border, are the best-fed people in North Korea; tellingly, this defector was severely malnourished and infected by parasitic worms, likely the result of North Korea's generally unsanitary conditions and the use of human feces as fertilizer. Yeonmi recounts in her book that everybody, including schoolchildren, had a quota to fill. Since bathrooms were far from the house, people worried constantly that their neighbors would pilfer their human waste.

Far from a mere grudging acceptance of her father's enterprises, Yeonmi lavishly praises North Korea's black markets--called jangmadangs-- as a rudimentary form of capitalism, and she believes that capitalism is the key to a better future for North Koreans. "I think my father would have become a millionaire if he had grown up in South Korea or the United States," she wrote admiringly of her father. "Without the black market, I wouldn't be here," she told IWF.

Yeonmi recounts that at the age of nine she was forced to watch the execution of the mother of a friend. According to Yeonmi, the woman's crime was watching a James Bond movie. "I'm often asked why people would risk going to prison to watch Chinese commercials or South Korean soap operas or seven-year old wrestling matches," she writes. "I think it is because people are so oppressed in North Korea, daily life is so grim and colorless, that people are desperate for any kind of escape."

Although the punishments for watching contraband Hollywood movies could be death, at the age of seven or eight, Yeonmi and her relatives gathered, covered the windows and watched the movie Titanic. It was a life changing experience. She was fascinated that the characters portrayed by Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to take risks for love rather than being wholly dedicated to their government. "What we were doing was taboo," she told IWF. " People were getting killed.  People getting imprisoned for watching outside information.  So, when I watched the movie Titanic, it literally opened my eyes and it gave me a sense of freedom and humanity."  

Still, Yeonmi's family was able to live a little better than many of their neighbors because of one simple fact: her father, Park Jin Sik, engaged in smuggling. He started out by selling cigarettes and branched into metal goods. Far from a mere grudging acceptance of her father's enterprises, Yeonmi lavishly praises North Korea's black markets--called jangmadangs-- as a rudimentary form of capitalism, and she believes that capitalism is the key to a better future for North Koreans. "I think my father would have become a millionaire if he had grown up in South Korea or the United States," she wrote admiringly of her father. "Without the black market, I wouldn't be here," she told IWF.

But North Korea is a dangerous place and the Park family inevitably ran afoul of the government. Park Jin Sik was arrested for smuggling and sent to "reeducation" camp. Later, Yeonmi's mother went into hiding after she learned that the police were searching her for another crime: illegally changing her residence. The decision to  escape seems almost casual--Yeonmi and her mother had approached smugglers for help in finding information about Yeonmi's sister Eunmi, two years older, who already had defected. When the smugglers offered to get them out of the country that night, they said yes.

They never thought to ask the women helping them why they did not have to pay them anything. On the other side, mother and daughter realized they had been trafficked. Mother and daughter were repeatedly raped. If they somehow managed to report their plight to the Chinese authorities, they would be sent back to North Korea.

After two years, Yeonmi and her mother were ready for a second escape, this time to freedom in South Korea. It meant crossing the freezing Gobi desert to Mongolia. Mongolia permits North Korean defectors from China to go to a third country. Aided by human rights activists and Christian missionaries, they made the journey, navigating their path by the stars. She arrived in South Korea in 2009, two years after leaving North Korea. After three months in a resettlement center, Yeonmi was released into South Korea. Yeonmi and her mother received a resettlement package of a little more than $25,000. Since arriving in South Korea, Yeonmi has completed her education and appeared on a South Korean TV show about defectors.

Now an activist for human rights and the free market, Yeonmi became a star when she delivered an impassioned speech in 2014. One Young World is a U.K.-based nonprofit that provides a global forum for young leaders.  Unlike many young leaders who hymn of the glories of socialism, Yeonmi is a firm believer in the free market. She is a media fellow at Freedom Factory, a Seoul-based, for profit think tank.  Going back to her own experiences, she believes that the black market offers hope for young North Koreans. She calls her generation the "Black Market Generation" and argues that only such trade can put a serious dint in the isolation that has allowed the Kim family to remain in power. Ending this isolation, she believes, is the key to ending the Kim family's control of North Korea.

"People in New York spend so much money to go to a gym and have a  trainer and try to be thin," she says. "I couldn’t sympathize with that, especially in the beginning because for me that only problem had been starvation. I never thought like having too much can be a problem.”

"Our Black Market Generation," she wrote in the Washington Post, "has had wide access to outside media and information. The private market has provided more than food and clothing — it has also provided TVs, bootleg South Korean movies and K-pop videos, USBs and DVDs. As a girl in North Korea, I saw 'Titanic, 'Cinderella, 'Pretty Woman' and 'Snow White' — not to mention WWE wrestling."

She stressed in her IWF interview, "North Korea failed because they banned a very fundamental system that helps people survive. When my father engaged in the black market, he kept us alive." She added that a "controlled economy is not human nature."

What does she think of President Trump's meeting with Kim Jong-un? She was dismayed. "Trump is supposed to be the leader of free world," she said. "He needs to protect freedom and human dignity, so how on earth he is going into a meeting with a dictator and saying that he is impressed by this dictator?  It is unthinkable what he did."

She would like President Trump to increase pressure on China to allow North Korean defectors to go to South Korea instead of being send back. But she believes that ultimately the Kim rule is doomed. "There is no way to  know exactly what is going to happen, but I know that their system is not sustainable because the system is virtually a lie.  It’s a lie.  The regime cannot keep up with this lie because as long as there are defectors like  me and others, we are doing everything we can to send information to the North Korean people to show them that they are denied and  have to fight for their rights."

If this sounds too hopeful, remember what endurance it took for Yeonmi to survive and build a new life for herself. She loves living in New York with her husband and baby, but admits to still being mystified by the plenty. She is amazed that in the U.S. people actually have to worry about obesity, a problem ordinary North Koreans never face.

"People in New York spend so much money to go to a gym and have a  trainer and try to be thin," she says. "I couldn’t sympathize with that, especially in the beginning because for me that only problem had been starvation. I never thought like having too much can be a problem.”

And it's not just food that many take for granted. “We live in a free country, and one of the things that I have observed is that people can also lose their perspective.  Not all of them, but some people. They don’t know how precious the freedom they have, and work hard to keep their freedom."

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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