North Korean defector Yeonmi Park is A 23 year old who has seen her mother raped, crossed the Gobi Desert and watched neighbours disappear. On Monday evening she stood in front of me at Penguin HQ London to tell the story of her life, worried and astonished by the bloggers/vloggers in the room wondering if they would understand the suffering she has gone through and being mind-boggled by the ‘job description’ of these internet people. She answered questions with grace, humour and selflessness. We all have something we bury inside ourselves but Yeonmi decided to sacrifice this. She has shared her story through her book In Order To Live at the cost of her privacy, a luxury she recognises she cannot have as an activist.
I have started reading Yeonmi’s book and hope to finish it soon. There has been controversy around North Korean defectors fabricating their stories but that isn’t the point here. There are prison camps, the regime treats people inhumanely and these stories although possibly partly fabricated can’t all be fictional tales. Forget the politics for a second and think about the humans who could be going through terror daily in North Korea. I am a skeptic on both sides really, but I do know humans should be treated as humans, not serfs or slaves.
Whilst I was at the event where Yeonmi discussed her book and life with the interviewer and I made notes whilst listening which I have decided to share with you all. My notes aren’t word for word what either party said but I hope they represent the idea/sentiment of what was meant. It was humbling how someone who has been through so much could be so light-hearted and still so determined to encourage the world to care.
Interviewer: Hi Yeonmi, thanks for being with us at this vlogger/blogger event for In Order to Live.
Yeonmi: I’m amazed by vloggers/bloggers and that in a democracy they can say what they want. I am grateful they care about what’s happening around the world.
I: What was you life like in North Korea?
Y: It’s a very unusual to have cake for birthday [her birthday was October 4] in North Korea they didn’t have that. I felt normal when living in North Korea but now I feel I lived in a very isolated country. My mother told me people can hear me, so I learnt to suppress my thoughts and words. My friends mother was executed.
I felt trapped in NK country. I didn’t know what superman was. The propaganda around the North Korean ruler was God-like. In pictures he was shining and he was given enormous respect and I even believed he could read my thoughts.
I was a slave to the regime. I feel sad that there are (25 million) slaves to the regime. My childhood and life are indescribable and that language cannot do it all justice.
I: How did you escape?
Y: My sister left for China. I used to wonder why China had lights when North Korea always had power outages. My sister left for China and me and my mother went after her.
After 7 years in 2014 I was reunited with my sister.
I: How did you learn English?
Y: In South Korea everyone spoke English and I started to watch an American show called Friends and it was not funny to me in the beginning and then after watching it for a while I understood. It’s my favourite show now!
I: Why is it important for people to listen to your story?
Y: I dreamed of being a normal person. I know everyone has a moment they don’t want to talk about but I as an activist can’t have that but it’s worth it to talk about her struggles. By sharing my story I have learnt so much, to be heard, I feel cared about and this is important.
I: What do you like to read?
Y: I feel I need to catch up. In North Korea nobody could care about books because they needed to care about surviving. Now I am reading science books and I wants to read more literature.
I: What plans for future?
Y: I want to watch friends again because I have an exam. I want to find a job and go to college. I am worried but then thinks I’ve crossed the desert so I can do this. I don’t know what I am good at even though I am 23 but I am going to try things, because I was not allowed to learn. But everything now will be a big learning experience.
I: What do you want people to take from this?
Y: I feel really hopeless sometimes and those people [North Koreans] don’t even know what it is to be free. Everyone has their own desert to cross. I know everyone / every country has their own issues, but we need to acknowledge that North Korea is an issue, a problem for entire humanity. We need to raise our voices together. We went to the moon so why not North Korea?
I: Do you like London?
When I was in North Korea I didn’t know many countries, never knew New York but I knew London and I feel it is close to my heart and I feel at home here. I love the accents. People like gardening – that’s a hobby! [She’s shocked by the concept of hobbies]
I was never allowed a hobby. I was never allowed to think for myself. But then I went to South Korea I realised I could have hobbies. I love the freedom here [London].
What process did you go through to get rid of the brainwashing from North Korea?
Even in South Korea I could not believe how South Korea was free I thought South Korea was colonised by America. It was a big shock for me, I couldn’t trust anyone. I didn’t know what to believe because all my life I knew something else.
I read Animal Farm by Gearge Orwell and this changed my life. The book made me cry because I could see my mother and grandmother in this book and could see the past and future of North Korea.
[On watching Titanic] I was shocked by Titanic and that someone could die for love. This was a revolutionary idea in North Korea suicide was prohibited you can only die for for the regime.
I saw dead bodies in the street but I also believed North Korea was best country in the world.
I: Is Education important?
Y: Education was very important for me. I learnt how to feel compassion for humanity through it. I learnt this since I’ve has been a free person.