Yeonmi Park Reflects On Early Life in North Korea

Yeonmi Park is a 22-year-old human-rights advocate living in South Korea. One could say Yeonmi is successful. She is smart and beautiful. She received a college education and worked at a think-tank. When she was a small child, this was a life Yeonmi could only dream of having. Yeonmi was born in North Korea, a country known for its oppression.

Yeonmi lived with her older sister and parents in Hyesan until she was 13-years-old. Mr. and Mrs. Park worked hard to provide for their two daughters, but they were at the mercy of a merciless government. Famine and frequent power outages swept the country. The Parks did not have indoor plumbing and would wash their laundry in a nearby river. Yeonmi was just nine years old when she witnessed the execution of someone she knew.

The smuggling of illegal goods was rampant in the 90s. USB drives, DVDS, and precious metals were contraband items that many people traded and sold to avoid starvation. Yeonmi’s father was arrested for smuggling silver and gold. He was arrested, tried, and convicted. Mr. Park was eventually sent to a labor prison, an action that forced his wife and daughters into further starvation. Yeonmi Park’s parents decided that it would be best for the family to flee to China. Eunmi’s sister left first, without warning her mother and sister that she was leaving or where she was going.

Mrs. Park and Yeonmi were led by smugglers who had no intention of guiding them to freedom. One of the smugglers instead raped and enslaved Yeonmi and her mother for more than two years. Yeonmi was forced into marriage and sex slavery. When Yeonmi and her mother were later freed, they knew that the had to act quickly. They were in China illegally, and deportation was a frightening possibility. They knew if they were returned to North Korea as defectors that they would be executed.

“China deports people back to North Korea all the time,” Yeonmi said on the Reason TV. “Those people are seen as traitors and are put to death. We cannot allow China to send people to their deaths.”

Yeonmi and her mother left China and made lives for themselves in South Korea. Yeonmi studied criminal justice in Seoul and began speaking on YoungVoicesAdvocates about her experience with the Kim regime and her life growing up in North Korea.