"I know what it means to be a slave, both physically and emotionally. I was physically free when I crossed that river, but I was emotionally enslaved for a long time after that. Now, for the first time, I own myself.” Twenty-one-year-old North Korean defector Yeonmi Park is telling me, via Skype from New York, about her forthcoming memoir, In Order to Live (Penguin).
Our conversation brings forth both her tinkling laughter and her tears, and as she talks I have a vivid picture in my mind of Yeonmi’s tiny frame, her gracious manner and her lioness courage, having heard her give a spellbinding speech during this year’s London Book Fair. “I surrendered all my privacy to write this book. It was so hard and so painful. I went through so much crazy stuff. But I wanted people to realise that North Koreans are just like them.”
One cold, black night in March 2007, Yeonmi Park—13 years of age and 60 pounds in weight— and her mother stumbled down the steep rocky bank of the frozen Yalu River which marks the border between North Korea and China. They had paid a people smuggler to get them across the border, risking their lives to make the short but perilous journey. They made it across, and became “physically free”.
But nothing had prepared them for what they would subsequently have to endure at the hands of those who sought to profit from the desperation of fellow human beings. Eventually, after enduring horrors in China that are difficult even to read about, mother and daughter made it to South Korea. It was seven years before they were reunited with Yeonmi’s elder sister, Eunmi, who had also managed to escape.
Co-written with Maryanne Vollen, who worked with Hillary Clinton on her autobiography, In Order to Live was acquired by Juliet Annan for Fig Tree after a chance encounter with Yeonmi last autumn, when the latter was staying in London to improve her English. (The title is taken from a Joan Didion quote: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”)
As well as telling the story of her escape to freedom, the book is also a riveting account of life inside North Korea. Yeonmi’s childhood was a time of malnutrition, fear, suspicion, disappearances, public executions and brainwashing propaganda about Kim Il-sung’s “miracles” and “American bastards”. When she left for school in the morning, her mother would say not, “have a great day”, but “take care of your mouth . . . even the mice can hear you”.
A sense that there was a better life to be had somewhere never left her, however. “Even in my darkest moments, I had hope that things would get better, that I didn’t deserve this. I was determined that I was going to have a successful and normal life”.
She probably won’t thank me for telling you, but these days Yeonmi’s normal life encompasses listening to Justin Bieber, as well as watching “Friends” box-sets and TV documentaries—“I have the whole of human history to catch-up on.” She reads voraciously, and tells me how she fell in love with classic novels when she was in South Korea. “I inhaled books like other people breathe oxygen. Reading Animal Farm was a turning point. I saw myself in that book. It taught me everything about who I was and about how the regime worked.”
The current North Korean regime has condemned Yeonmi as, among other things, “a poisonous mushroom that grew from a pile of garbage”. It would be funny were it not so sinister. Nevertheless, she continues to campaign vociferously for the human rights of her fellow North Koreans. “If I keep silent, I am betraying my people,” she says.
Even when she fled China, by walking across the frozen wastes of the Gobi to Mongolia, Yeonmi Park found she was more afraid of being forgotten than of dying. Having read her story, it’s hard to overstate quite how difficult it is to forget her.
Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan