Yeonmi Park

On Nov. 15, 2016, Park gave a talk in The University of Georgia's Tate Grand Hall as part of International Education Week. The room was filled close to capacity as people gathered to hear Park speak.

“Defect from North Korea” is not a phrase found on most bucket lists. Yeonmi Park, a 23-year-old North Korean defector attending Columbia University in New York, never expected it to be in her to-do list either. But as a young girl, she set out to do just that.

On Nov. 15, 2016, Park gave a talk in The University of Georgia's Tate Grand Hall as part of International Education Week. The room was filled close to capacity as people gathered to hear Park speak.

“In North Korea, I did not know my life would turn out to be this way,” said Park. She had no idea she would be in Georgia this week, nor did she have any idea of the trauma she would have to endure as she escaped a place she once called home.
Park’s talk explained her hopes for the future, what it was like to live in North Korea and what her family did to escape. Her narrative oftentimes left the audience in stunned silence at the true depth behind her words. 

“We often think North Korea is a communist country, but it is a kingdom,” Park said. “No one is equal. No one is free. The government determines everything for you.”

Kim Jong-iI was the head of the government of North Korea from 1994-2011 before current leader Kim Jong-un took his place. The head of government also has power to rule over every North Korean’s individual and personal life.

In school, Park did not know the internet existed. She did not know there was a whole outside world. They were taught the words of their leader. They were taught not to trust. In class if someone misbehaved, they would have to repent for their sins and criticize someone else in the class.

“That way no one could trust anyone,” Park said. “There are no friends in North Korea. There is no concept for that. ‘Friends’ must only be called ‘comrades.’”

She could not learn about the world through school, and it was hard to find any other way to obtain information since any media was regulated. Some movies and books were allowed to be brought in through the borders, which is how Park first learned about love.

The film “Titanic” with Leonardo DiCaprio taught her what love is.

“In North Korea, there is no ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Love is not something dignified, it is something to be hidden,” Park said. “In ‘Titanic,’ a man died for love, not for his leader.”

Watching these films helped Park to conceptualize an outside world, one that wasn’t filled with as much suffering as hers was. Her world consisted of basic survival.

Park’s father was caught selling items on the black market and was put in a prison camp where he developed colon cancer. Due to his imprisonment, Park was no longer allowed at school. She ate dragonflies and grass, anything that she could find while she turned to nature to help her survive.

She found herself in a hospital where they had no medical machines. Just by pressing on her stomach, the doctors determined she had appendicitis. In reality, she was malnourished and nothing was wrong with her appendix. They did surgery with no pain killer and took her appendix out anyways.

“I’m going to sue them once I get back,” Park said, laughing. “Don’t worry.”

The hospital only had one needle, which they used on every patient. It was a miracle that Park did not get infected during her stay there. Through the fear and death that surrounded those days, Park and her family realized they needed to leave the country to survive.

“All we knew is at night, there are lights in China. There were no lights in North Korea. That was enough information to risk our lives,” Park said.

Making it to China did not prove easy. Park and her family trekked across mountains and a frozen river to make it to China’s border, where guards stood constant watch.

“The first thing I saw in China was my mother being raped before my eyes,” Park said.

The Chinese government awards its citizens for capturing defected North Koreans. Human traffickers are aware of this fact, and 80-90 percent of women defectors are exploited.

Park was unable to escape the human trafficking brokers that awaited her in China. She was only 13 years old when she became a broker’s mistress. After some time, however, she was released. True freedom was still far from reach. She crossed the freezing Gobi Desert from China to Mongolia before reaching South Korea. South Korean missionaries helped her get there on the condition that she believed in God.

“This sounds like it should be the end, but this is just the beginning of another story” Park said.

She did make it to South Korea, where she was given safety and food. However, she was not prepared to live in this new world. She had to learn more than just a new language, but also how to make use of concepts such as credit cards and ATMs.

She also had to learn, for the first time, how to think for herself. 

When she read “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, she could see herself in the young pigs of the story. “‘Animal Farm’ is exactly what’s happening in North Korea,” Park said.

Through that story, she thought more about animal rights and human rights when she had never given thought to having rights before. She hopes that more people in North Korea will be able to express their rights as humans, too.

“It is our challenge to find meaning in life,” Park said. “I hope someday in the news we don’t only talk about politics, and we talk about human lives.” 

She also mentioned how the western world perceives Kim Jong-un.

“What we hear in the media is about Kim Jong-un’s haircut or about how fat he is,” Park said. “But when something is only funny, we don’t know the gravity or the seriousness of the situation.” 

Park continues to be an activist and a voice for oppressed people. She hopes that by spreading her story, and the stories of others like her, the world will recognize the oppressed people and spread change.

“Help me to talk about the human story of North Korea,” Park said.