Park Yeonmi had thought that her classmates would never recognise her on TV, with her heavy make up and all, but she was recognised even by strangers on the streets. It seemed that she had worked so hard adapting to life in South Korea that many people who knew her were not even aware that she was actually a defector from the North. This book gives a poignant account of how a young North Korean defector survived the ordeal of an unnecessarily tortuous, humiliating path to freedom.
Compared to most North Koreans, Yeonmi had a rather privileged childhood. Her father was a member of the Workers Party, the state apparatus in of the totalitarian regime. Even though he had very little income from his official work for the Party, Mr Park had many contacts and connections through which he could operate his metals smuggling business for a considerable profit. The Park family was thus relatively well off. Yeonmi lived happily in Hyesan with her elder sister Eunmi and her mother. Like many North Koreans, her greatest wish was to visit Pyongyang. Unlike most North Koreans, Yeonmi fulfilled her dream when she was only 8.
All that changed when Mr Park had an affair with a fellow smuggler. When she was arrested and interrogated, she spilled the beans on Mr Park who tried to help her but ended up in trouble himself. He was sentenced and sent to a prison camp.
Their family’s fortunes plunged overnight. Yeonmi’s mother had to work, doing a bit of beautician work and a bit of smuggling herself. She had to sell the house and move to her hometown in Kowon while the two girls dropped out of school as they had no money to pay for expenses in school. While a lot of services in North Korea were supposed to be free, the service providers often demanded for payment or they would refuse to operate. With their father in prison and their mother often away from home, Eunmi and Yeonmi often had to hunt dragonflies and roast them for food. .
Mr Park was released from prison after some 3 years of hard labour. He became a shadow of his former self and was in poor health. The family was constantly underfed. Then, Yeonmi and her sister noticed that people around them had been disappearing. There were rumours that they had gone over to China. The sisters started asking around, looking for brokers who could smuggle them across the border. Then, Eunmi disappeared one night. They had no way of knowing if her escape had been successful. Yeonmi and her mother decided to go to China themselves to find out.
On 31st March 2007, Yeonmi and her mother walked across the frozen Yalu River and entered Changbai, China. Only then did they realise that they were in the hands of human traffickers to be traded like animals and sold from one household or individual to another. 13-year-old Yeonmi was introduced to the subject of sex by witnessing her mother getting raped. North Korean escapees had little choice or recourse as only one fate could await them if they were ever found by the Chinese police – repatriation.
They were slaves without a voice, trapped in a virtual paradise of seemingly endless food supplies and glitzy shopping malls. Yeonmi feasted and soon learned to practise a standard of hygiene previously unknown to her. But she and her mother were subsequently sold and separated. North Korean women were either sold into prostitution or married into families which could not afford a Chinese bride.
Yeonmi then entered into a bargain with her owner who had tried to rape her. She would surrender her virginity in exchange for being together with her parents. She became the mistress of a gang leader. Mr Park was smuggled into China, but the broker was disappointed as he was in very bad shape and would be of little economic value. He was diagnosed with cancer and soon died.
All searches for her sister Eunmi turned out in vain, but Yeonmi managed to gain some measure of freedom after getting one mafia boss to fight with her owner over her. She met and later worked for a very resourceful Korean lady who was operating a sleazy chatroom business. Yeonmi and her mother not only managed to make a living in front of webcams, they saved enough money to buy themselves fake IDs.
They then found out about a church at Qingdao which smuggled North Koreans to Mongolia. Even though South Korea was just across the sea, it was impossible for them to clear Chinese customs in that big modern city. The pastor assisted them on the condition that they read the Bible and sang Christian hyms. Though both of them found it difficult to accept Christianity after being brainwashed to worship the Kims since young, they had to oblige.
Together with other North Korean escapees, Yeomni and her mother made their way to Erenhot in Inner Mongolia. Armed with blades and poison pills, they were determined not to live if they were ever caught. Trekking across the Gobi Desert at night, they arrived at the border. After being arrested, the guards taunted them with 回中国 but ultimately brought them to a holding unit at Ulan Batar where they met up with a South Korean representative.
Both Yeonmi and her mother had great difficulty settling down in South Korea at first. Even the language was so unfamiliar. But Yeonmi was determined to fit in. She did well in school and quickly dropped her North Korean accent. While attending a Christian retreat in America, she received news that her sister Eunmi had arrived in South Korea. She was so excited that she shortened her stay and returned to South Korea immediately. Meeting a long-lost sister brought much tears and joy, but Yeonmi could sense that her sister had changed through her ordeal. Both sisters eventually graduated from university in Korea, but Eunmi had decided not to go public with her story.
Her sister had taken a different route to freedom, travelling southwards to Kunming, through SE Asia and finally arriving in South Korea through Thailand. Yeonmi could understand why so many North Korean defectors would rather take their humiliating story to their graves, but while she herself had held back a lot of information while she was being featured on Korean TV, she finally decided to write this book and not hold back any of the ugly details in China. While she respects the privacy of her fellow defectors, hers is a story that had to be told – like a contemporary version of the comfort women’s ordeal.
Not surprisingly, Yeonmi’s account has been challenged by several sources.This included the following article published by The Diplomat. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Yeonmi was only 13 when she escaped from North Korea and she was even younger when she was living in North Korea. A lot of the things she learned as a child could have been told to her by adults who were all out to get her attention. Also, she had made a deliberate attempt to cover up certain details on TV shows, so some inconsistency is to be expected. Yeonmi had also clarified that her English was still rudimentary when she was interviewed by the foreign press.
Many refugees and defectors have given interviews to foreign journalists. While they may have embellished their stories to attract attention and the details are often challenged by fellow refugees and defectors (who have not been interviewed), the bigger truth about gross human rights abuses in North Korea remains unchanged.
Yeonmi is married with a child and living in America.
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