By Nadya Okamoto, Lawrence Jia, Anders Zhou, Diana Chao, and Elly Choi (2017 Global Teen Leaders)
“To you, he was a joke. To me, he [Kim Jong Un] was a God,” said Yeonmi Park today when she presented to the 2017 Global Teen Leaders at the Just Peace Summit.
If you were to pass by her, she could be anyone — a businesswoman, a doctor, or perhaps a lawyer. She entered the room with an astonishing presence, as if she was attuned to a different frequency — like she was someone truly extraordinary. Her black and white plaid dress and small pink jacket were unassuming, and she stumbled a bit in her heels. “I don’t know what I’m doing here!” Her nervousness crashed against her polished appearance like cymbals.
Tentatively, she introduced herself as a North Korean defector. Eyes dry, she slowly began to deliver the story of her life.
To non-North Koreans, Yeonmi began, Kim Jong Un appeared as a paper tiger — a caricature of despotism reduced to comedy flicks like The Dictator or Saturday Night Live jokes.
To her, Kim Jong Un was a literal god. He was “Our Dearest Leader.”
Yeonmi’s world was a terrible reality. It featured a society which she referred to as “brainwashed.” During Yeonmi’s time in North Korea, she recalled a society where public executions were performed arbitrarily. When one person was arrested, their entire family was at risk of being sent to a Korean work camp. “You can be killed for watching a [foreign] movie,” said Yeonmi.
It was when Yeonmi first watched a smuggled copy of Titanic that she realized there was a world outside of hers. The vision of young Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet kissing introduced a completely alien situation. To Yeonmi, it was the first time she witnessed a man die for someone who wasn’t the Dearest Leader. Titanic became a prototype of the outside world — a vision that would ultimately drive her to search for a world where people were well-fed, had the freedom to love, and understood the concept of liberty and happiness.
“It was when Yeonmi first watched a smuggled copy of 'Titanic' when she realized that there was a world outside of hers.”
When Yeonmi’s father was arrested for illegal trading, her family became ostracized and lost their home. For a time, Yeonmi survived on grasshoppers and dragonflies she caught and bathed in the river, making the most of her impoverished situation.
When her sister turned sixteen and left the family for China--a land that lit up at night like nothing she’d seen in the perpetual darkness of North Korea, Yeonmi decided to follow. With a stranger’s kindness, Yeonmi soon led her mom by the hand to flee across the frozen Yalu River and into China.
After arriving at the northern bound of Manchuria from her escape, Yeonmi was quickly recaptured by Chinese soldiers who threatened to deport Yeonmi and her mother back to North Korea where they would face execution. To satisfy the shortage of girls to be married in rural China, a result of the One-Child Policy, the soldiers would allow them in but only if they could have sex with Yeonmi. However, the unabiding love and protection of Yeonmi’s mother saved her from assault, and her mother was raped in front of her. Yeonmi recalls the horrifying scene as something “no girl should ever witness”. Not only a physical assault, the mental and emotional violation of Yeonmi continues to haunt her today.
“During Yeonmi’s time in North Korea, she recalled a society where public executions were performed arbitrarily.”
Soon after, her mother and her were sold by the soldiers. Her mother for $65, and her for under $300 because she was a young virgin. For the next two years, Yeonmi was a “mistress” to someone much older than she was, a “slave” she said. She was then introduced to missionaries who told her that if she proved her devotion to Christianity, they would help her escape. They arranged for her to lead a band of eight North Koreans across the Gobi desert. With them they carried knives and poisonous drugs and threatened to use them when they met the Mongolian border soldiers who were hesitant to let them in, because they knew it was better to kill themselves than go back to North Korea and be killed.
In 2009, Yeonmi and her mother arrived in South Korea. “What’s your favorite color?” someone asked her there. Yeonmi paused. “Red.” That’s the color of the regime, after all. But then she thought about it, and she wasn’t so sure. What was her favorite color?
Her whole life was worshipping the regime that ruled her like a religion. No one ever asked her what she thought about anything--not her value, not her philosophy, and certainly not her favorite color. For the first time, she became an individual with her own opinions. And what she thought mattered.
Later, Yeonmi blurted her admiration for trash cans, which she saw for the first time in China. “A trash can means you have something to throw away.” In North Korea, nothing was thrown away, because you owned nothing you could dare to throw away.
“For the first time, she became an individual with her own opinions. And what she thought mattered.”
So this is what it means to be an individual in the West: when you learn to read, you learn to draw careers in your heads and slip futures out your tongues. Your favorite color is plastered onto flaking walls; your trash cans sag beneath the weight of half-eaten sandwiches and plastic from barbie doll boxes.
But individualism is a privilege beyond anything else a typical Westerner can imagine. To be an individual is to be someone worth remembering. To deny anyone that right just because of where they happened to be born, to erase their identities like their lives could be distilled into pencil marks is not just hurtful to someone like Yeonmi.
It is cruel.
One seventeen-year-old girl from South Korea, Elly, sat in the audience as tears dried her eyes red. As a girl born to a middle-class family in South Korea, she realized what a privileged and picturesque childhood she had--in stark contrast to Yeonmi’s story of systematic oppression and censorship. She thought about how when she was stuffing herself with Korean pastries in the street markets at age five, Yeonmi was scavenging through forests to eat dragonflies and grasshoppers to survive. She thought about how if she had just been born across the river, her life would have been strikingly similar to Yeonmi’s.
Listening to Yeonmi’s story, Elly realized that while she had known of the extreme limit on technological accessibility and lack of freedom of thought present in North Korea, she was not aware of the extent to which individuals had to suffer in order to escape. The brutal violence and sexual exploitation described by Yeonmi in her story evoked a realization: Elly craved more knowledge about the situation in North Korea. With this realization came an overwhelming sense of guilt for her lack of knowledge and a desire to help, a feeling shared by everyone in the audience.
But the journey is not the only hardship Yeonmi has had to overcome. The road to recovery was undeniably difficult as well.
Rape victims often feel ostracized from the societal narrative, and have difficulty recovering from the trauma inflicted upon them. There are also an abundance of societal stereotypes, depicting North Koreans as vulgar and cannibalistic. Telling Yeonmi’s story of sexual abuse requires sheer courage and determination.
With tensions along the Korean demilitarized zone rising exponentially in the past decade during the reign of Kim Jong Un, increased missile tests and internal political divisions have further alienated The Land of the Morning Calm. Yeonmi’s incredible resilience and persistence in the face of hardship exemplify the obstructive domestic policy in North Korea. Detention camps and executions of political opponents have long been criticized by international nonprofit groups and the United Nations.
“Telling Yeonmi’s story of sexual abuse requires sheer courage and determination.”
Park’s father was imprisoned in a Korean gulag, also known as “kwanlisos”. According to a 2016 United Nations report, over 120,000 of Kim’s political opponents are incarcerated in these Nazi-style camps. Faced with a lack of basic human rights and needs, prisoners often face hunger, whippings, and beatings. Due to the primal conditions, hundreds of thousands have perished amid “unspeakable atrocities” committed by the North Korean government. In fact, according to satellite images, it is estimated that a notorious detention camp, Camp No. 25, has more than doubled in size since 2014. Crimes as innocent as smuggling Western DVDs can result in a lifetime of forced labor. Park’s moving description of her father, a minor government official, captures the human essence of these forced labor camps.
Near the end of her speech, Yeonmi expressed her greatest fear as repudiation from the North Korean government. Just last week, the half-brother of Kim Jong Un was poisoned and killed after defecting. Through tears, Yeonmi maintains that though there is paranoia among North Korean defectors, she manages to stay positive through her rediscovered faith in humanity. Her continued conviction and activism for changing the political dynamic in North Korea is inspiring.
By the end of her speech, tears were streaming down faces and tissues were quickly distributed. The rawness of Park’s story and her generosity in sharing it with us was simultaneously mesmerizing and moving.
How can you respond to someone — how can you empathize with someone who watched the rape of her mother, who faced death with apathy and felt so frightened by her home country that she preferred to hold a knife to her neck rather than return back?
At the end of her speech, Yeonmi Park took questions from the audience. The final question asked was how youth advocates could make a difference. Her answer was simple: money doesn’t matter; it is more about raising awareness that this is a human rights issue of slavery, and information must get to North Koreans to show them that other options exist.
Park said that she is regularly asked if she is from North or South Korea, and looked at the audience with stunned eyes as by then, it was clear the near impossibility of someone escaping North Korea. Even though North Korea is perhaps the largest threat posed against the United States with their dictatorial leadership, there is a dramatic lack of awareness about the human rights violations of the country.
“That’s why I’m here and why I tell my life story, because people don’t realize what’s happening to people there.”
What we need to do is start talking about North Korea as a people’s issue, and calling upon our representatives to join us in fighting for the liberation of North Koreans. More importantly, though, Yeonmi Park said that the only way that things are going to change is if North Koreans realize that they are slaves and that individualism exists.
“Even though North Korea is perhaps the largest threat posed against the United States with their dictatorial leadership, there is a dramatic lack of awareness about the human rights violations of the country.”
Yeonmi Park ended by expressing how happy she is now and how her biggest dream is to go home. She deeply misses the connection that North Koreans have to nature, and the presence of face-to-face interaction that disappears with the developed world’s never-ending presence of technology. “I don’t have big dreams now,” she said, “when I was your age, all I wanted was a warm bucket of bread. Now I’m here, so how can I not be so happy and grateful?”
In 2015, Yeonmi Park published her autobiography, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, and she is now studying economics at Columbia University. Her biggest wish for her 23rd birthday was to meet Titanic star Leonardo DiCaprio, and that wish is coming true next week. We are honored to be able to help share her story, and we hope that you share it to help Yeonmi Park in her mission to raise awareness and sensitivity about the human rights abuses of North Korea.
Continue the conversation with Yeonmi Park (@YeonmiParkNK).