In her memoir In Order To Live, Yeonmi Park lifts the veil of secrecy that surrounds life in the brutal and paranoid dictatorship of North Korea.
Its leadership loves to posture on the international stage, getting into stand-offs with the US and South Korea and using parades and rocket launches to show off its military might.
One thing that’s harder to discover is what really goes on inside the so-called “hermit kingdom.” Visitors are not welcome and the media is so strictly controlled that few details ever make their way outside the borders, unless through the testimonies of defectors.
Childhood In World of Fear
Yeonmi Park defected in 2007, spending the next two years in constant fear that she would be discovered and returned to North Korea, to face either starvation or imprisonment. In Order To Live is her frank account of a childhood in a country where mind control, servitude and fear are used to subjugate an entire population.
Her family was initially prosperous but their status plummeted when her father was imprisoned for trading on the black market. Her mother was then taken in for questioning and other family members were penalised. Without the required status, Yeonmi’s future hopes of attending university and training as a doctor, evaporated. Soon after, the family began a decline that they believed would end only one way – death through malnutrition.
At the age of 13 she and her mother fled the country, escaping to China in a perilous night-time journey across a frozen river. They believed they had reached freedom only to discover in the first hour on Chinese soil they had been duped. Though they had food they were the victims of human trafficking.
We had come to a bad place, maybe even worse than the one I left.
Park’s narrative chronicles the pair’s harrowing ordeal over two years when they were exploited by Chinese marriage brokers. It took another dangerous journey, walking across the Gobi desert at night, in sub zero temperatures, to escape into Mongolia and subsequently to South Korea.
Today Yeonmi Park is a human rights activist, speaking out against the North Korean regime and appealing to the world to help the people still suffering in her home country. She got that coveted university place, became a television personality (appearing on a talk and talent show featuring North Korean defectors) married and became a mother.
Confronting The Past
It’s an astonishing and powerful story. One that Park was initially reluctant to tell, wanting – understandably – to put the past behind her and to blend more easily into her new life. But she realised that in order to be “completely free,” she had to confront the truth of her past. The turning point was when she read a line from Joan Didion: “We tell our stories in order to live.”
I felt the truth of those words echoing inside me. I understand that sometimes the only way we can survive our own memories is to shape them into a story that makes sense out of events that seem inexplicable.
It’s a remarkable book. Questions have apparently been raised about the accuracy of her narrative and inconsistencies between different accounts of her experience. I suspect that she has skirted over some details of her time in China and her relationship with her handler. But I’m left in no doubt from reading this book that Yeonmi is a young woman who has huge reserves of strength and determination to survive against tremendous odds.
Reading To Live
When she arrived in South Korea, for example, she had the education level of an eight year old. But she was determined to achieve her goal of a university place. When local schools didn’t meet her study requirements, , she stayed home and just read.
…all I did was read. I inhaled books like other people breathed oxygen. I didn’t just read for knowledge or pleasure. I read to live. … I read to fill my mind and to block out the bad memories.
As much as her story pulls on the heartstrings, it was Yeonmi’s reflections on opinions among North Korean people towards their leadership that I found particularly interesting.
She skilfully details the ways in which North Koreans are taught from birth that their leaders are like all-powerful gods. Such is the level of indoctrination that as a child, Yeonmi Park considered it unthinkable to show disrespect for the leadership. Like her classmates she joined enthusiastically in military games (nobody wanted to be on the hated “imperialist American” team ) and believed their leader Kim Jong II to be a benevolent father to his people.
Truth And Reality
Yet there were people, including her father, who (silently) questioned the propaganda of a North Korean socialist paradise. Illegal access to Chinese and South Korean television programmes showed people in “enemy nations” enjoying plentiful food, clothing and reliable power electricity while in North Korea, emaciated bodies regularly turned up in rubbish heaps and the streets were full of people crying for help.
North Koreans have two stories running in their heads at all times, like trains on parallel tracks. One is what you are taught to believe; the other is what you see with your own eyes. It wasn’t until I escaped to South Korea and read a translation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four that I found a word for this particular condition: doublethink.
This “doublethink” is how you can shout slogans denouncing capitalism in the morning, then browse through the market in the afternoon to buy smuggled South Korean cosmetics.
If you’ve ever wondered how it must feel to live in an oppressive society and to yearn for freedom, this book is one you won’t want to miss. I suspect it’s a selective account, emphasising some of the darker elements to give more of a mass-market, commercial appeal. But it’s no less valuable for that. It’s not only an account of one of the most secretive nations in the world, it’s a narrative that demonstrates the strength of the human spirit and one young woman’s incredible determination to live.
In Order To Live: Endnotes
Yeonmi Park was born in North Korea in 1993, escaped to China in 2007 and settled in South Korea in 2009. She rose to global prominence after she delivered an emotional speech at the One Young World 2014 Summit in Dublin, Ireland, calling on the world to help the millions of people suffering at the hands of the North Korean regime. Her speech received 50 million views in two days on YouTube and social media
Her memoir In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey To Freedom, was written in collaboration with Maryanne Vollers and published in 2015.
Questions have been raised about the accuracy of some parts of her narrative and inconsistencies in details. For example, whether it was true, as she describes in the book, that her family was so close to starvation that she and her elder sister would forage in the countryside for “wild plants and insects to fill our stomachs”, and her father would eat snow to fill himself.
Yeonmi has defended herself against the accusations in The Diplomat, explaining that some of the inconsistencies were due to her lack of English language skills. She also apologised that her childhood memories were not perfect.
Her co-writer Maryanne Vollers told The Guardian newspaper in 2015 that she had verify Yeonmi’s story through family members and fellow defectors who knew her in North Korea and China.
2014 Speech at One World conference, Dublin
2015 Interview (BBC)