The Langham Hotel, a swanky five-star place in central London. A former X Factor contestant walks by. A rich American tourist. A French fashion type. Then Yeonmi Park (22) picks her way through the vast marble lobby, dressed smartly, impeccably groomed, delicately beautiful, tiny.
We sit down and order tea. And it’s hard to know where to begin. She’s wonderfully polite, and very obliging, but asking her to recall the harrowing events of her life feels like an intrusion. Or, worse, it feels like it’s forcing her to re-enter a desperate, dark and tragic place she fought so hard to escape. But that is what the 22-year-old North Korean defector has chosen to do. She has left behind the terrors of North Korea and the dictatorship of the Kim dynasty, but rather than moving on with her life in privacy – or secrecy or shame – she has chosen to speak out about the plight of the 25 million people who still live there.
“My story can only speak for myself, but I’m not the only victim of this tyranny,” she says when I ask her why she has chosen to tell her story. “There are millions of people, so many people who have not achieved their dream: to be free. We should not forget those victims.”
On October 10th, North Korea celebrated 70 years of the Workers’ Party. There were extravagant displays and parades, with tens of thousands of soldiers – their faces blank as they moved their limbs in perfect time – marching on the pristine streets, overlooked by Kim Jong-un and a crowd that cheered with a forced fervour. The most secretive state on the planet invited the world’s press – they were putting on an impressive show for us – but Yeonmi Park can pull it all apart in a few devastating sentences.
She was born in North Korea in 1993. Thirteen years later she fled to China with her mother, crossing the frozen Yalu river on foot in the dead of night.
"I lived in North Korea, the country where we were supposed to have nothing to envy, and all I felt was envy, desperate envy, for the people on the other side of the river," she recalls in her memoir, In Order to Live. "I still didn't dare think about why we couldn't have so many things in North Korea, but I knew that I wanted to go where there was light and food."
It was a treacherous decision. If they had been caught, they would have been executed, but death was preferable to staying in North Korea, where the family had no food, no money and no hope; where the regime’s pervasive propaganda had finally been punctured by the threat of imminent starvation and the sight of bodies in the streets.
The whole country suffered successive famines after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of Soviet subsidies. Life in North Korea had often been precarious anyway, as songbun – the caste system, where people are graded according to their loyalty to the Supreme Leader – decided families' fates.
There had been dramatic ups and downs for the Park family, times of relative prosperity and happiness – Yeonmi remembers watching Titanic and other American films that had been smuggled in from China, and visiting the capital, Pyongyang – and periods of destitution when she and her older sister, Eunmi, were forced to eat grass and insects to survive. Following her father's imprisonment in a brutal prison camp for trading on the black market, their situation became untenable.
The realisation that life in North Korea was hardly worth living took hold slowly, sneaking in through a fog of brainwashing. At school (Yeonmi had a patchy education), North Korean children are taught that they live in the best country in the world and that the US is truly evil. Even the instruction of basic arithmetic becomes a propaganda exercise; a typical problem goes: “If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead Americans do you have?”
People are too scared to question the divinity of the leader, even to their own family members or themselves. Yeonmi says that when Kim Il-sung died after ruling North Korea for 46 years, many, including Yeonmi’s mother, were shocked; they had truly believed he was immortal. The individual is not a concept understood by those living by the doctrine of the Kims, and the harsh circumstances and the constant fear that life could get even harder if the police come for you, reinforce that.
When Yeonmi was asked what her favourite colour was after she escaped, she was flummoxed. The thought of liking something that wasn’t prescribed by the regime was unfathomable.
“I didn’t have the luxury to think of ideology or dreams or hobbies. I didn’t think of anything except for surviving,” Yeonmi says now. “When you are hungry, all you can think of is food. Here, when you say you’re hungry, you’re just hungry; but hunger means death.”
Does it feel strange, then, to be sitting here in a luxury hotel? She laughs. “People trying to get a reservation at a very delicious restaurant, to me, that doesn’t really matter. To me, everything is edible really.”
She escaped North Korea to find food, and also because somehow, beyond fear and oppression, she knew there was something better. She could sense freedom.
She didn’t discover it for another two long years. When she and her mother fled North Korea, they were immediately handed over to Chinese people traffickers. Her mother was raped in front of Yeonmi after she sacrificed herself for her daughter. Soon she was sold as a wife to a Chinese farmer. Yeonmi fought off sexual assault several times, but she was raped when she was 13 and became an enslaved mistress for a local Chinese gangster.
Eunmi had fled to China before her mother and sister, but could not be found. North Koreans are not granted refugee status in China, so they live in constant fear of being sent back to face death, which leaves them existing in brutal lawlessness.
Thinking of that time now, Yeonmi says: “I cried every night, every day, every single day. Then I realised our tears can dry up. I learned that when you have energy to cry, you are in good shape.”
So there’s a place beyond crying that’s even worse than crying?
She nods. “You’re hopeless. When you see there’s no way out. And you see the sky, and even the sky is pressing you down.”
Her father managed to joined them (Hongwei had helped facilitate his escape), but he died of colon cancer and they were forced to bury him in secret. After escaping the people traffickers, Yeonmi, still only a young teenager, and her mother, found work at an adult chatroom. Then, in 2009, they came into contact with missionaries who would help them to make it to Mongolia; from there, they could travel to South Korea, where they would be welcomed as refugees.
Crossing the Gobi desert
They crossed the Gobi desert at night, relying on the stars to guide them. Yeonmi carried a blade, with which she planned to slit her own throat if she was captured. And they made it.
In South Korea, Yeonmi was eventually reunited with Eunmi and became a "learning machine". She not only had to catch up on the basics (she had the education level of an eight-year-old) but also to try to understand what had happened to her in North Korea. Reading George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 were integral to that process.
"I came to think about Animal Farm, and my thoughts became deeper, and that moment was just realising that Kim Jong-il cannot make a miracle; he's a bad bastard," she says. "Really, George Orwell, I am so thankful for him."
Today, she is articulate and intelligent. She went to university in South Korea, first to become a policewoman, then to study law (she has a fierce desire for justice), but the course of her life changed once again when she was invited to speak at an international conference for young people in Dublin around this time last year.
It was the first time she had been outside Asia, and she recalls Dublin fondly, mentioning “the Guinness . . . and the big white [Samuel Beckett] bridge”. After telling her story, she received a rapturous response from delegates in the room and viewers online, and found herself in the position of international spokeswoman and human rights activist. Her mother, with whom she is still in constant contact (“every moment”), wondered why she wouldn’t just stay in South Korea, pursing a lucrative career, maybe having a family. But Yeonmi knew she had to find her freedom and fight for that of others trapped in North Korea.
For a time, she was too ashamed to let others know what had happened to her in China, but in the past year, as she writes in her memoir, she found a way to tell her story.“I feel a lot freer now that I have written this book. Because I was hiding this secret, that I was raped when I was 13 years old. I told a secret. And I feel a lot freer now. I don’t know if I totally know what it means to be free yet, but I’m learning every day. I know what my favourite colour is now. It’s spring green.”
- In Order to Live, by Yeonmi Park, is published by Penguin