While many people have heard stories about the horrible manner in which North Korea treats its citizens, not many of us are aware of the specifics. This is not because people in other countries aren’t curious; it’s because North Koreans aren’t allowed to speak about the abysmal way in which they are treated by their government. In fact, many of them are quite unaware of the outside world. They’re not permitted to use the internet or read news about the Western world. Yeonmi Park is a young woman who is attempting to change that. At only 21 years of age, she has experienced the worst of North Korea—and lived to tell the story.
When her father was sent to prison for selling metals to China, suddenly Park’s family found themselves falling on hard times. They were so poor, in fact, that Park said she would eat grass because she was starving. When she had reached the age of 13, Yeonmi Park weighed only 60 pounds. Park’s mother knew that they had to leave the country—or starve to death. She made the decision to take Yeonmi over the border to China, which was an extremely dangerous proposition.
Once they arrived in China safely, however, the women realized that their horror would continue—in a different way. They became victims of human trafficking, and Yeonmi has spoken out at length about the injustice of a world in which human beings are sold. Instead of suffering in silence, Yeonmi has spoken openly about her experience. Several of her speeches have racked up many views on YouTube, and she has even been interviewed by “The Today Show” host Savannah Guthrie about her terrifying ordeal.
Park’s novel In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom was recently released, and in it she goes into great detail about how her upbringing affected her. Her stories of the real North Korea—a world in which people would celebrate the rare occasion whenever their electricity was turned on—are totally riveting. From a very early age, she and her friends were forced to use their imaginations to create toys and other entertainments, since such things were not readily available in such an impoverished country. She also chronicles the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s, when many families were forced to go hungry.
Also, Yeonmi has expressed the kind of mental terror with which the Kim regime has reigned over the country. As a small child, she was taught to believe that Kim Jong-Il, known as “Dear Leader”, could actually read her thoughts. She also grew up in an environment where neighbors would feel the need to tell the authorities about other neighbors who were not as patriotic as they could have been.
Yeonmi Park’s life—and her willingness to tell her story—provides all of us with a fascinating glimpse into a culture that is shrouded in mystery. Her bravery is an inspiration to the entire world, and a wake-up call.