An astonishing memoir of survival from Yeonmi Park who defected from North Korea with her mother when she was 13 to begin a new life in South Korea. She now lives in USA, where she is an author and human rights campaigner who continues to fight for change in the country of her birth.
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IN ORDER TO LIVE: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom
BY YEONMI PARK
“my mother told me not to whisper because even the birds and mice could hear me”
Yeonmi Park was 13 when she defected from North Korea, first escaping across the border into China and from there to begin a new life in South Korea. She now lives in USA, where she is an author and human rights campaigner who continues to fight for change in the country of her birth. Aged 21, she wrote her memoir ‘In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom’ which documents her remarkable journey from this dictatorship regime.
As a young girl, Yeonmi lived in Hyesan, a North Korean city on the border with China, with her parents and elder sister Eunmi. During her early years, both Yeonmi’s parents had good jobs by North Korean standards, yet they were still very poor and always starving, so their father smuggled goods across the border from China, selling them illegally on the black market to supplement their income. When the economy in North Korea collapses in the 1990s and famine ensues, the state clamps down on such activity and her father, Park Jin Sik, is first sent to a labour camp and later imprisoned causing the family’s position and wealth to spiral to the lowest levels.
During this time, Yeonmi describes the oppression and suffering, always starving. What is particularly poignant to note, is that because they are continually fed lies, they were never able to practise critical thinking. The only love North Koreans knew was for their ‘Dear Leader’ who was their almighty God and whom they believed was suffering and starving like all North Koreans were. With a sub-standard education, it was impossible to comprehend that the hardship they were experiencing wasn’t normal. The situation becomes so desperate for the family that Yeonmi’s mother is forced to leave both her daughters alone in their tiny apartment for days on end with barely any food and no light. Yeonmi’s account of this time is harrowing and hard to imagine.
By 2007 the situation reaches tipping point and with their father still in prison, the rest of the family make the monumental decision to try to flee to North Korea across the river into China. Eunmi is 16 and Yoenmi is 13. Living on the border, the family could see the bright lights of China at night and perhaps this was what allowed them to imagine a life beyond their own. The consequences of this choice are far-reaching. Apart from the unimaginable risk of what will happen to them if they are caught, for anyone who defected, the rest of the family left behind in North Korea were made to suffer. Eunmi leaves first, unexpectedly and with no warning. It is left to Yeonmi and her mother to take this highly risky journey together. Yeonmi has been very ill and so is already extremely weak when they finally escape. They soon discover life in China is not the golden ticket they thought it would be. They are at the mercy of human traffickers. She later says that it was the humiliation of this trafficking that held her back from telling her story and some of it is distressing to read.
Finally, Yeonmi and her mother take a further dangerous decision to flee China to get to South Korea, where they know they will be welcomed and safe but if they are caught trying to escape, that they will be killed. After much preparation and under the guise of a Christian Missionary group led by a South Korean pastor, they are guided to make the treacherous walk miles across the Gobi desert in freezing temperatures from China to Mongolia where they will be sent to South Korea. The final section of the book follows Yeonmi and her mother trying to adapt to a totally different kind of life and freedom in South Korea together with the continued search for Eunmi.
This is an astonishing memoir of survival and determination. Den tip – it is worth viewing one of the talks Park has given to hear some of the stories and what her life was like first hand.