In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom
by Yeonmi Park, Maryanne Vollers
Genre: non-fiction, autobiography
Human rights activist Park, who fled North Korea with her mother in 2007 at age 13 and eventually made it to South Korea two years later after a harrowing ordeal, recognized that in order to be “completely free,” she had to confront the truth of her past. It is an ugly, shameful story of being sold with her mother into slave marriages by Chinese brokers, and although she at first tried to hide the painful details when blending into South Korean society, she realized how her survival story could inspire others. Moreover, her sister had also escaped earlier and had vanished into China for years, prompting the author to go public with her story in the hope of finding her sister.
Nicely written account of life in North Korea during the height of the famine after the fall of the Soviet Block (in the 90s’) but there are some gaping holes in the narrative. You won’t see them immediately because the story is written very well and moves forward at a comfortable pace. Her voice is sympathetic and you’ll fall into the narrative, but pay attention and be critical. You’ll soon see there is something not quite right with some of the facts given to us.
I can’t judge with absolute certainty but I believe she’s giving us a story she doctored with other people’s stories. We get the usual indoctrination and repression background, the constant struggle for survival, but taking into account her father’s vast connections with the underground smuggling rings, I find it hard to believe they were as poor as she says they were at one point. I also find it hard to believe the schools didn’t send people after wayward students (she and her sister missed school a lot at some points), if the regime is so strict about indoctrination and population control. I get it that you can bribe almost everyone, but the system would collapse by now if nobody believed in it. I live in Slovenia, a former socialist country (Yugoslavia), and I’ve heard quite a lot about the way society policed people and children back in those times. And we were never as bad as Stalin’s Russia, ok? People still feared to speak up about abuses and children could get parents into some real trouble by saying the wrong thing.
“But when I was seven or eight years old, the film that changed my life was Titanic. It amazed me that it was a story that took place a hundred years ago. Those people living in 1912 had better technology than most North Koreans! But mostly I couldn’t believe how someone could make a movie out of such a shameful love story. In North Korea, the filmmakers would have been executed. No real human stories were allowed, nothing but propaganda about the Leader. But in Titanic, the characters talked about love and humanity. I was amazed that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were. The idea that people could choose their own destinies fascinated me. This pirated Hollywood movie gave me my first small taste of freedom.”
But let’s assume she’s telling the absolute truth about North Korea; the trouble with the story really starts after she escapes her homeland. The author fled to China in the new millennium after the family fortune took another sharp blow. The first to escape was her sister who went missing for several years. The next to go were her mother and Yeonmi. Having no idea what they were getting into they ended in the hands of human traffickers. This is where the author isn’t as truthful as she could be with us. Maybe it is the trauma and stigma associated with sex workers, I don’t know, but she’s sugar-coating some aspects of the horrors she experienced there. She describes herself as very small, fragile 13-year old girl but she says she fought of at least three rapists. I also find it improbable that two Mafioso types fought over her at some point. I just don’t know, and it troubles me. It doesn’t diminish the power of her story about North Korea and the suffering people face there but it does give her critics a lot of ammunition, especially since she hid a lot of these things in her previous public appearances. Understandable, but perhaps very misguided.
Anyway – I’ve read enough about trafficking to know she speaks the truth about the various ways women get exploited. She says she got lucky that the man owning her wanted her for himself and never pimped her out. But she had to help him sell other women from North Korea, and work as some sort of courier. Is she obscuring the facts because she got deeply implicated in the plight of other women? Has she blood on her hands? It is a very messy situation and the sudden jumble of events spiralling out of control, her desire to reunite with her father and mother, the attempted escapes… all this makes it hard to judge just what to believe has happened in China.
“They need to control you through your emotions, making you a slave to the state by destroying your individuality, and your ability to react to situations based on your own experience of the world.”
North Koreans who face deportation to their homeland and possibly long prison sentences, if not death, for fleeing their country deserve our support. China should not extradite them to the regime but let them apply for political asylum in South Korea. The current situation makes them travel through China into other neighbouring countries, a journey that exposes them to all kinds of horrors and exploitation. I’m behind her for spreading this message and drumming up support for change.
So, read the book but rely on other more official reports to inform yourself about the issues regarding refugee status of North Koreans in China, and the situation of inhabitants in this totalitarian country. If you find a more personal approach towards difficult issues a better starting point, this story might make you interested in them.
Here’s an interview with her in 2015 for Women in the World: