My Escape From North Korea: How I Moved On From a Life of Horrors

Yeonmi Park shares the harrowing tale of her liberation from North Korea.

february 2016 escape from north korea childCourtesy Penguin Random House LLC

I am most grateful for two things: that I was born in North Korea and that I escaped from North Korea. Both of these events shaped me, and I would not trade them for an ordinary and peaceful life. But there is more to the story of how I became who I am today.

There’s a quote I once read from Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Sometimes, the only way we can survive our own memories is to shape them into a story that makes sense out of events that seem inexplicable. I’ve seen the horrors that humans can inflict, but I’ve also witnessed acts of kindness and sacrifice in the worst circumstances. I know that it is possible to lose part of your humanity in order to survive. But I also know that the spark of human dignity is never completely extinguished and that given the oxygen of freedom and the power of love, it can grow again.

I grew up in Hyesan, a city of 200,000 on the Yalu River, which runs between China and North Korea. It is the coldest part of North Korea, with temperatures plunging to minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit.

My mother and father encouraged me from the start to be proud of who I am. My father sometimes held me in his lap and read me children’s books. The only ones available were published by the government and had political themes. Instead of fairy tales, they were stories set in a place called South Korea, where homeless children went barefoot and begged in the streets. It never occurred to me that they were really describing life in my country.

[pullquote] I’ve seen the horrors that humans can inflict, but I’ve also witnessed acts of kindness and sacrifice in the worst circumstances. [/pullquote]

Children were taught to hate the enemies of the state with a passion.

We also read about our Leaders and how they worked so hard and sacrificed so much for us. Our Dear Leader Kim Jong Il had mystical powers. His biography said he could control the weather with his thoughts and that he wrote 1,500 books during his three years at Kim Il Sung University, named after his father. This worship of the Kims was reinforced in documentaries, movies, and TV shows broadcast by the single, state-run station. Whenever the Leaders’ pictures appeared on the screen, stirring sentimental music would play. It made me so emotional. North Koreans are raised to venerate our fathers and our elders, and in our collective minds, Kim Il Sung was our beloved grandfather, and Kim Jong Il was our father.

Children were taught to hate the enemies of the state with a passion. Our schools and textbooks were full of images of grotesque American GIs with blue eyes and huge noses executing civilians. Sometimes at recess we lined up to beat or stab dummies dressed like American soldiers. Every subject in school came with a dose of propaganda. A math problem would go like this: “If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?”

There were so many things we were forbidden to do, buy, or sell, and public executions were used to teach lessons in loyalty and the consequences of disobedience. When I was little, a young man was arrested for killing and eating a cow. Cows were the property of the state, and they were too valuable to eat because they were used for plowing fields and dragging carts. Anybody who butchered one would be stealing government property.

This man suffered from tuberculosis and had nothing to eat, but that didn’t matter to the police. They took him behind the market and tied him to a piece of wood. Three men with rifles began firing at him until his body flopped to the ground. My mother watched in shock—she couldn’t believe that in her own country, a human’s life had less value than an animal’s.

february 2016 escape from north korea family photoCourtesy Penguin Random House LLC

Families could watch only state-generated propaganda films, which were boring. So there was a huge demand for smuggled foreign movies and TV shows, even though you never knew when the police might raid your house. They’d first shut off the electricity so that the videocassette or DVD would be trapped in your machine for them to find. People got around this by owning two players and switching them if they heard a police team coming.

My uncle had a VCR, and I went to his house to watch Hollywood movies. My aunt covered the windows and told us not to say anything. I loved Cinderella, Snow White, and the James Bond movies. But the film that changed my life was Titanic. I couldn’t believe that someone had made a movie out of a shameful love story—in North Korea, the filmmakers would have been executed. I was also amazed that the characters were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were. The idea that people could choose their destinies fascinated me. Titanic gave me my first small taste of freedom.

In March 2007, Yeonmi and her mother paid a smuggler to take them across the Yalu River and into China. They were escaping a repressive regime but also wanted to find Eunmi, Yeonmi’s older sister, who had fled North Korea one week earlier. Once in China, before they could search for her, they were immediately seized by traffickers—Yeonmi’s mother was sold to be the wife and servant of a farmer, and Yeonmi, then 13, became the assistant and slave of a trafficker. By 2009, the two women had managed to free themselves and connect with an underground Protestant mission that helped North Koreans leave China through the Gobi desert to Mongolia and, eventually, South Korea.

Our group was crossing the border into Mongolia at night on foot during the winter, when temperatures could drop to minus-27 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter crossings were supposed to be safer because Chinese border patrols were lighter as a result of the frigid weather. There was a real possibility we could be arrested, and my mother and I had decided we would not be taken. She had collected a cache of sleeping pills, and I hid a razor blade in my jacket so that I could slit my throat before they could send us back.

It took four long days, by train and bus, for our group of defectors to reach the desert. We were accompanied by a Han Chinese man who worked for the mission. “If any of you gets captured, please don’t give up the rest of the team,” he said. “Tell the police you were traveling alone and save the rest of them.”

He took us to a tiny town in the middle of the Gobi. A woman at the mission had given us two flashlights and two compasses, and the guide showed the only man in our group how to use them. We were to go northwest from the drop site, then pass through five barbed-wire fences before arriving at the tall border fence. We should identify ourselves as North Korean refugees to the first person we met and turn ourselves in to be rescued.

[pullquote] The cold was like a living thing. It clawed at my skin and grabbed at my legs to slow them. [/pullquote]

After the sun set, a taxi took us to a spot a few miles outside town. Our Chinese guide gave us last-minute instructions: “If you look out in the desert, the bright lights are coming from a town on the Mongolian side,” he said. “Head toward them. The lights from the town on the Chinese side are much dimmer. Stay away from them.” He pointed to the brightest star in the sky. “If you get separated from the group or can’t use your compass, just look up and find the star. That will be north.”

Then he left us. After we walked a few steps, my mother and I looked back and saw that he was on his knees on the frozen ground, praying. I wondered, Why does this person, who doesn’t speak our language, care so much that he is willing to risk his life for us? I said a silent prayer of thanks as we became a part of the night.

There was no cover—just miles of featureless sand and stone dotted with dried grass. The cold was like a living thing. It clawed at my skin and grabbed at my legs to slow them. I leaned against my mother for warmth, and she gave me her coat when I couldn’t stop shivering. Her shoes were too thin, and she kept stumbling. The male defector gave her an extra pair of running shoes. They were too big, but she tied the laces tight to keep them on her feet. I doubt she would have made it without his help.

It was the longest night of my life. Every time we thought we heard a noise or saw a headlight in the distance, we panicked. After we wriggled under the fourth barbed-wire fence, we heard the sound of engines and saw a huge searchlight sweeping over the desert. We threw ourselves to the ground and prayed until the sounds and light faded away. We were afraid to turn on the flashlight and look at the compass, so we used the stars to guide us. But then clouds covered them. For a while, we probably walked in circles until we decided to huddle around the man to block the light while he read the compass.

As the hours went on, it got colder, and I started doubting we would make it. I thought about dying. Would anyone find my bones or mark my grave? Or would I be forgotten as if I had never existed? To realize I was completely alone was the scariest thing I’ve felt in my life, and the saddest. I also started hating Kim Jong Il.

I finally allowed myself to think bad thoughts because even if he could read my mind, I was going to die anyway. Still, betraying the Dear Leader was probably the hardest thing I had ever done. It felt like his hand was following me, trying to pull me back. My mother later told me she was thinking the same thing.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, a pack of wild animals surrounded us. I heard them panting, and I could see the glow of their eyes. I completely lost my mind.

“Help us! Is anybody out there? Anybody!” I screamed. But there was no one at all.

I was ready to lie down and die. Suddenly we heard a train. It sounded close, but it seemed to come from two different places. Most of our group ran one way, but my mother and I thought the sound had come from somewhere else, so we ran in another direction.

Minutes later, the border fence took shape in the half-light. I thought it was a mirage until we saw holes in the wire and bits of cloth snagged where others had crossed. As we scrambled through, the barbs ripped at my coat as if they were trying to rake me back into China. My mother helped me tear myself loose, and we were free.

The sun rose behind us, casting our shadows across the desert floor, and my mother grabbed my hand as we walked into Mongolia.

Mongolian soldiers took the women to a detention center, where they were held for several weeks before they were put on a plane to South Korea. In Seoul, they were detained again while being interrogated by officials looking for spies. Following a stay in a resettlement center, they moved to a small town in South Korea. Yeonmi studied diligently and entered college. In 2013, she and her mother were reunited with her sister, Eunmi.

In September 2014, Yeonmi went to Dublin to represent North Korea at the One Young World Summit, an annual meeting of youth leaders. She was planning to speak about human trafficking in China, although she had no intention of revealing that she, too, had been trafficked.

february 2016 escape from north korea present dayGlenn Glasser for Reader's Digest

One of my great fears has always been losing control. Sometimes I feel anger inside me, and I know if I ever let it out, it might explode. I worry that if I start to cry, I may never stop. So I keep these feelings deep down inside me. People who meet me think I’m the most upbeat person they’ve ever met. My wounds are well hidden.

But that day in Dublin, they were there for all to see. As I stood in front of an audience of 1,300, I fought to speak through my tears. “North Korea is an unimaginable country …,” I began. I told people that in my country, you could be executed for making an illegal international phone call. I told them when I was a child, my mother told me not to whisper, because even the birds and mice could hear me.

“The day I escaped North Korea, I saw my mother raped by a Chinese broker who had targeted me,” I said as tears flowed down my face. The Chinese preyed upon the vulnerability of refugees. “Seventy percent of North Korean women and teenage girls are victimized. Sometimes sold for as little as two hundred dollars …
“When I was crossing the Gobi, I wasn’t afraid of dying as much as I was afraid of being forgotten … But you have listened. You have cared.”

[pullquote]I worry that if I start to cry, I may never stop. So I keep these feelings deep down inside me.[/pullquote]

Everybody in the audience was on their feet, crying with me. I looked around and knew that justice was alive in that room. But there was still one more desert for me to cross.

Afterward, I gave dozens of interviews. I believed that by changing a few details about my escape, I could hide the fact that I had been trafficked. If I was truthful about everything else, then the details shouldn’t matter.

Less than a month after my speech, I began this memoir. As soon as I started writing, I knew that I could no longer hold anything back. How could I ask people to face the truth about North Korea and what happens to the women who flee if I couldn’t face it myself?

When I returned to Seoul, my mother and sister and I stayed up one night, talking. There were things that happened in China that my mother and I had never told Eunmi. For all its bullet trains and modern architecture, South Korea is still a conservative country with old-fashioned notions of female virtue. If people knew what I had done to survive, I was sure nobody would ever look at me the same way. And what difference would it make? Would anyone care enough to try to change things?

But my mother recognized the potential impact of our story. “You have to tell the world that North Korea is like one big prison camp,” she said. She wanted people to know the plight of North Korean women in China. “If you don’t speak up for them, who will?” she said. My sister agreed.

As soon as I decided to tell my secret, I felt free for the first time ever. It was like a heavy sky had been pushing down on me, pinning me to the earth, and now it was lifted, and I could breathe again.

in order to live bookExcerpted from In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.  Copyright © 2015 by Yeonmi Park. Buy the book here.

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