Yeonmi Park..Escaping North Korea

11/24/2014 11:00

by Luke McGrath


Who is Yeonmi Park?  Yeonmi is a human rights activist. She was born in North Korea in 1993. She lived there until March 30, 2007, when, at the age of 13, she escaped the country in the dead of night with her mother. Today, she travels the world, providing people with insight into what it's like to live under the world's most evil dictatorship. Hers is a truly harrowing story.  She's witnessed things and experienced events that would break the toughest of men. Yeonmi experienced starvation and ate grass and insects to survive, saw her mother being raped, saw bloody public executions, and was forced to cross the Gobi desert to find freedom…To hear this soft-spoken, clearly very intelligent young woman speak so calmly and courageously about the horrors she went through… well, it's tough to walk away without some newfound perspective.

Yeonmi Park speaking at the Liberty Forum, © Atlas Network

Tom Phillips, a journalist for The Telegraph, wrote a profile on Yeonmi last month. His article opens with a pivotal event in her life that I think's worth quoting: "Yeonmi Park was 9 years old when she was invited to watch her best friend's mother be shot." Growing up in North Korea, Yeonmi had seen executions before. She remembers her mother piggy­backing her to public squares and sports stadiums to watch the spectacles used by Kim Jong Il's Workers' Party to silence even the slightest whisper of dissent. "But this killing lodged in her mind. Yeonmi watched in horror as the woman she knew was lined up alongside eight other prisoners and her sentence was read out."  Just what crime had her best friend's mother committed that warranted such an act? "Her crime was having watched South Korean films and lending the DVDs to friends. Her punishment in this most paranoid of dictatorships was death by firing squad."


Yeonmi says this was the first time she felt terrified.  As a young girl, she too watched foreign DVDs. Films there have much more significance than they do for us in the West. They only know what the regime teaches them. So for North Koreans, watching movies is one of the few ways to learn about the world. Yeonmi says that watching James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic was a "turning point" in her life.


In North Korea, people are taught that the most noble thing a person can do is die for the regime.  But in Titanic, Yeonmi discovered that people are also willing to die... for love. She relayed this story at the Oslo Freedom Forum last month.


"[Titanic] wasn't propaganda... It made me realize that I was controlled by the regime. I was not aware, like a fish is not aware of water. North Koreans don't know the concept of freedom or human rights. They don't know that they are slaves."  I found this last point especially interesting, as it was also brought up in the Q&A.  Someone asked her about the prospect of revolution in North Korea. She replied that, in North Korea, the concept of revolution against the regime doesn't even exist.  The people know only what the regime instills in them… and that's propaganda.


After escaping North Korea through China and then Mongolia, Yeonmi finally arrived in South Korea.  But it's not been an easy adjustment for her to her new life in the West. Something I wasn't aware of is that in South Korea, North Korean defectors are treated very poorly. They're stereotyped and regarded as stupid.  (To give you some statistics, from 1953 to the present day, approximately 27,000 North Koreans -- out of a population of 25 million -- have escaped to South Korea.)


Yeonmi wanted to prove them wrong, however, and she did this by reading an incredible number of books and teaching herself English.  One of the books that resonated with her the most was George Orwell's Animal Farm. She cried all night after reading it. It made total sense to her.


She lived it.


What Yeonmi is doing -- raising awareness about the horrors of North Korea -- has not made her many friends in the North Korean regime. She found out earlier this year that she's quite literally an enemy of the state.


Yeonmi was placed on a "target list" of North Korean defectors that the "Dear Leader" seeks to eliminate. And only very recently, because of all the attention she's drawing to the plight of North Koreans, Yeonmi was informed that she was moved up on that list... to No. 1.


There's no question that we here in the West have a lot of legitimate grievances with what our governments are doing. We do have the right to complain. And we should. But listening to Yeonmi's story gives you some perspective. The U.S. government may be bad... but the North Korean state is pure evil.



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