When I was in college, I remember taking an international politics class. It was an Intro class, populated by a lot of students who heard it was a skate class. We ended up talking about North Korea one day, and one waste of valuable mass stood up to proclaim that if he were a North Korean, he wouldn’t be taking any of “ this Kim Jong Whatever’s shit.” When our professor (I hope trying to amp up our fremdschämen, and as a slight tangent, seriously God bless the German language) asked this oxygen destroyer what he would do to survive in North Korea, he said he would sell his own stuff at the market (“free market capitalism, baby!”) escape, or he would just kill the dictator himself. I think he got a gentleman’s C.
There’s a pervasive myth that the people of North Korea are miserably complacent, blinded by their cultlike adoration for the Dear Leader. Implicit in that criticism is the idea that if the North Koreans wanted to leave, they could. No problem. The recent rash of books written by North Korean escapees is proof that nothing could be further from the truth. The latest, Yeonmi Park’s In Order to Live is yet more evidence that many people in North Korea see their situation more clearly than we give them credit for. It’s just that the way out is nearly impossible.
Yeonmi Park was brought up near the Chinese border in the city of Hyesan. Compared to others in her country, the Park’s had it pretty good in North Korea for awhile. Her father was a smuggler who sold goods on the black market (see dumbass from the first paragraph?! Your ideas aren’t original!) and her mother helped with the business, allowing them to avoid a lot of the famine of the 1990s. They had nice clothes, enough food and a television. But when her father was arrested and thrown in a prison camp, Park had nothing. As her family lost weight and were looked down on by their neighbors, it still didn’t occur to Park to blame any of the Kim family. She remembered a treasured dream she had as a child of sitting on the lap of her Dear Leader as he gave her candy.
Even as Park couldn’t bring herself to connect her struggles to Kim Jong Ill’s apathy, she and her family understood their situation in North Korea had become untenable. Her sister made a deal with a smuggler to get her into China and disappeared without saying goodbye. Terrified, Yeonmi and her mother hatched a plan with the same smuggler to get across the border.They made it, only to discover their new hell was just beginning.
Because of China’s stringent one-child laws, there’s a shortage of women in the country. Many families (especially in the rural areas) rely on traffickers to bring in foreign women for their sons to marry. In case it’s not obvious, these women-here illegally, threatened physically, and usually unable to speak the language-had no say in this. Yeonmi’s mother was taken to be a wife. Yeonmi fought off rape attempts ferociously until a trafficker promised her if she stayed with him, he would buy back her mother. Yeonmi gave in. She was 13 years old.
Eventually, Yeonmi and her mother managed to escape to South Korea, and Yeonmi became a Human Rights Activist, determined to bring attention to her countrymen’s plight. I know I’ve given quite a lot of the plot away, but her story is really in the journey. So few North Koreans are given the opportunity to tell their tale and I think it’s the world’s responsibility to listen. So pick up this book, and learn what the world is like for millions of people today.
In case you’re still curious, here’s a video of Yeonmi speaking at the 2014 One World Summit in Ireland. It’s worth a listen.