‘I see North Korea as one of the most evil, inhuman situations happening on earth’
Park Yeon-mi managed to escape from the hell of North Korea and is now an activist and student based in Seoul. She recently published a memoir of her harrowing journey to freedom
As a teenager in 2007, Park Yeon-mi made the arduous journey from her homeland of North Korea to China, where she fell into the hands of human traffickers before escaping to South Korea. Today the 22-year-old is a student and human rights activist whose speech at the One Young World summit in Dublin attracted more than one million hits online. In September, Park published her harrowing memoir, In Order to Live. She talks about her life and her book.
What was it like growing up in North Korea?
Like living in a different universe. The oppression is like nothing imaginable – I literally believed that Kim Jong-il could read my mind. It was a religion to me, not just a regime, [Kim] was an almighty god who could do everything.
You have said you lived a “privileged” life. What do you mean?
That I could eat three times a day. Not having a car, not having 24-hour electricity, but having some candy or an apple once a month. Basically, I didn’t get killed by the [North Korean] famine so that means I was pretty lucky.
Did you lose any of your family in the 1994-98 famine?
My uncle died from TB. I have a very vivid memory of my grandmother killing herself before the famine got her. Everybody, every household, was victimised. One day I saw my grandma taking some tablets. Usually she took one or two. That day she was grabbing more and more – so I asked her why. She told me: “Grandmother takes some rest.” Later my uncle was yelling at her asking her to wake up, but she never did.
What was school like?
The most important thing was learning about the Dear Leader and the family’s great achievements and their almighty abilities to make miracles – and learning about their enemies. Why were we so poor? Because of American bastards; because of Japanese imperialists. We needed our brave leader to defend us against our enemies.
What did you learn about the Dear Leader?
That if he writes something, the words on the paper fly. He can show up in the east and the west in one second. He is the son of the universe.
Did you ever have a glimpse of a different world view?
I didn’t even learn the word “dictator” at that time. If there is no word that means you don’t have the concept. In North Korea they eliminate the words: depression, stress, dictatorship, human rights. You cannot think of those. That’s why all the brainwashing was possible.
What was your worst fear growing up?
Just being hungry – I think that’s the worst thing you can feel to be human. Seeing the dead bodies, and rats eating people, those kind of desperate things.
Journalists have flagged some inconsistencies in the stories of your survival and escape; some fear that you may be exaggerating the truth for effect. What are your thoughts on this?
First of all I am thankful for [those] people, who told me how responsible I should be when talking in public about the issue. I never asked to be a spokesperson or public figure. It just happened. I didn’t really learn what price I needed to pay. I am a human. I am not a computer. I’m sure there will be some mistakes. Writing this book was the process of remembering.
What about trauma?
When I was young, lots of memories were mixed up and blacked out. For many years I forgot lots of memories until I wrote this book; they were too shocking. That’s how my memory tricked me and helped me to survive. Everything in the book is verifiable. Some things we couldn’t verify we didn’t put in because I don’t need to make things up – reality is enough.
You have also since said that you obscured facts about your escape from North Korea in early interviews to hide a secret …
I had to hide my secret that I was sold and raped. I was 13 years old. As soon as I arrived in China, the broker wanted to rape me and my mum protected me and sacrificed herself [by telling him to rape her instead]. They told me if you want to live in China you have to be sold to live as a wife to a Chinese farmer. My mum was sold for US$65 dollars. And my price was US$260 because I was a virgin. And we got separated. She was sold to a Chinese farmer and I was sold to a Chinese human trafficker.
What happened then?
The man who brought me, he made a deal that if I became his mistress he’d bring my mother and father back to me. I wanted to kill myself because of the shame.
You finally made it to South Korea in 2009 through the help of missionaries. What was your first impression as a 15-year-old seeing Seoul for the first time?
I got sick. I was not used to those big buildings and so many lights. I didn’t know anything – I didn’t know about credit cards, shopping malls, coffee machines. They were speaking Korean but I had no idea what these people were talking about. I had learnt to die for the regime – not [to work towards] going to an Ivy League school or becoming a doctor or lawyer. They talked about competition. I had never heard of “competition”. I had never learnt how to think for myself. The whole world changed.
Many defectors have talked about relocating to South Korea only to find discrimination.
There were stereotypes: you are from the communist country so you are not a hard worker. You talk awkwardly and speak with an accent and you don’t have any high education like us so you are basically stupid. And I am shorter than South Koreans – I was malnourished when I was young. It made me believe I was a loser.
This January you are starting a degree at Columbia University, in New York. What’s you’re ambition?
I want to do a PhD. I never had the privilege to learn. [Having] so many options I hated at the beginning. I thought if I could be free I would be the happiest person on earth, but that’s not all about being a human. That’s when we need to find purpose in life - that is the hard part.
And your human rights activism?
I see North Korea as one of the most evil, inhuman situations happening on earth. When we know more about North Korea, the dictator loses power. When we learn more, more solutions come out. Raising awareness is not just talking about something, but we can start change from there. Hopefully [I can] shine the light on the darkest place.