Yeonmi Park is a remarkable young lady who has seen more tragedy and suffering during her short life than most people experience in a lifetime. Her book entitled In Order to Live tells her story. She was born in Hyesan, a city in the northern part of North Korea, bordering China, to parents who were civil servants. Though dissatisfied with the hard handed tactics and the brainwashing of the North Korean government, Yeonmi’s father could only mutter under his breath in the presence of his family. Her mother often had to remind him that “even the mice and birds have ears.” The Kim Jong II regime demanded complete loyalty and devotion from its subjects, with a very real threat of violence if it was lacking.
During the mid nineties, there was a famine in North Korea which added to the misery and discontent of the people. When the government stopped supplying rations, constant hunger and even starvation became a part of everyday life there for all but the elite. Yeonmi’s father, desperate to provide for his family, began trading on the black market. He was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to 17 years in a labor camp. His wife and daughters were subsequently no longer a part of the midlevel society but were marked criminals pushed to the outskirts of humanity there in North Korea. While being held prisoner, enduring torture and starvation, her father became ill.
Knowing that their only hope for survival was to escape from the grips of the North Korean government, Yeonmi’s family devised a plan to escape. Her older sister, Eunmi, left in the winter of 2007, making her way into China by way of the river which was frozen solid. She and their mother followed and thus began two of the most horrendous years that anyone could ever imagine.
The Chinese authorities turned over all escapees that they discovered to the North Korean government, so Yeonmi and her family were forced to remain in hiding. They were attacked by traffickers at one point and her mother was raped as she tried to protect her daughters. Adding to the nightmare that was Yeonmi’s life at that time, her sister was lost and presumed to be dead and her father, who had finally joined them, died of colon cancer.
At long last, on a cold night in 2009, Yeonmi and her mother were able to walk into the Gobi Desert on their way to freedom in Mongolia. By the time they reached the South Korean Embassy, they were crawling but finally free and safe! They settled in Seoul, South Korea and were incredulously joined by Eunmi, who had managed to escape after five years.
Yeonmi Park knows the feeling of being forgotten by the rest of the world and is therefore determined that the ongoing suffering of the North Korean people be made known to all. She hopes that in telling her story on youngvoicesadvocates, she opens the eyes of people around the globe to the changes that are desperately needed in her home country.