Escape From the DPRK

Escape From the DPRK

How Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector, became a controversial globe-trotting celebrity on the stage of international human rights.


In October 2014, One Young World, a human-rights organization of youth ambassadors, held an international meeting in Dublin. Among the speakers was Yeonmi Park, a waifish 21-year-old wearing a peculiarly fusty pink hanbok, or traditional Korean dress, and matching hair ornament. In practiced English she told the audience of her family’s suffering and escape from North Korea. A video of the appearance details her family’s saga: the hasty decision to cross the border into China; her father’s imprisonment in a North Korean gulag and his death from untreated cancer; the rape and slavery that she and her mother endured as undocumented migrants; and finally their eventual trek to seek refugee status, first in Mongolia and then in South Korea, which grants citizenship to defectors from the North.

To the audience of human-rights advocates, Park was an inspiring new face: a diminutive girl standing up to the most repressive regime on earth. But to many South Koreans, she and her story were already very familiar. Between 2012 and 2014, Park, appearing under her pseudonym Yeju Park, was a regular on Now on My Way to Meet You (known in South Korea as Ee-mahn-gahp), a kitschy variety show featuring beautiful female defectors from North Korea. Like others on the program—a blend of The View and The Price Is Right—she wore heavy makeup, teased hair, minidresses, and stilettos, and gave alternately jokey and mournful accounts of the life she escaped in the DPRK. She had earned the nickname “Paris Hilton,” a reference to the relative comfort (sartorial and otherwise) that she, her mother, and her sister had enjoyed back home.

There was nothing of this canny, glamorous Yeju Park on the One Young World stage in Dublin. This was her coming-out party as a very different kind of North Korean defector: surviving victim, witness, and cosmopolitan activist. Her transformation takes another turn in her memoir, In Order to Live, which has been as carefully staged as her appearance in Ireland. The book, which takes its title from Joan Didion’s famous line about how “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” is co-authored by Maryanne Vollers, the ghostwriter of Hillary Clinton’s bestselling Living History. In October 2015, Park was on an extensive international book tour, sharing her account of life in “an unimaginable country.” Her memoir, one of a handful of North Korean defector narratives published in English last year, is intriguing, not as much for its literary value as for the questions it raises—about the veracity of these stories and their appeal to readers in Asia and Europe. Park’s book is already slated for translation into Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Danish, Polish, French, Slovenian, Czech, German, Romanian, Hungarian, Portuguese, and Swedish.

Previous tales of North Korean survival have proven unreliable, yet the genre commands a unique authority in the United States. George W. Bush, who as president signed the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004, was reportedly moved to action by defector narratives; he even invited Kang Chol-hwan, the author (with Pierre Rigoulot) of the memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang, to the White House in 2005. As demonstrated so clearly last year by the Sony hack and the controversy over The Interview, the slapstick movie about Kim Jong-un, North Korea continues to be a favorite punch line and punching bag. It’s not uncommon to find Americans completely obsessed with the DPRK who know nothing of South Korea or the Cold War bargain that split the peninsula in two.

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Park was born in 1993, in Hyesan, a city just across the Chinese border, about 350 miles northeast of Pyongyang. When she and her older sister Eunmi were very young, their father worked as a respected party member and civil servant, while their mother tended to the home. The family enjoyed a relatively high status, but with the agricultural crisis and famine coinciding with the end of Soviet supports, Park’s family, like so many others, turned to black-market capitalism to survive. Her father smuggled precious metals, a risky but remunerative venture that earned him enough to keep his family fed, support a mistress in Pyongyang, and grease the hands of officials and would-be informants. He got away with it until 2002, when he was arrested and imprisoned.

It was at this point, Park writes, that she and her sister experienced the kinds of deprivation that outsiders associate with North Korea: extreme hunger and cold; untreated illness; desperate acts like saving one’s feces for fuel. The two girls stopped going to school and focused on staying alive. Their mother, meanwhile, was on the road, “buying and selling watches, clothes and used televisions.” When Park was 11, she and her sister got into their own underground business, selling persimmons. “My small market transactions made me realize that I had some control over my own fate. It gave me another tiny taste of freedom.” Another “life-changing” taste had come a few years earlier, she says, while watching a smuggled VHS tape of Titanic.

In 2005, Park’s father conned a prison official into granting him medical leave and returned to his family wraithlike and hobbled by a chronic disease. Park’s mother was then in hiding from the authorities for her own business activities and would later turn herself in for a month of hard labor. Around the same time, Park, not yet an adolescent, nearly died from a botched surgery, an event that pushed Eunmi, then 16, over the edge. While visiting Yeonmi at the hospital, Eunmi explained that “she had found a broker to take her to China,” and within a few days she disappeared. Park and her mother went to see the same woman and spontaneously decided to cross themselves, leaving Park’s ailing father behind. Park writes that “right then and there I made up my mind. I was going to China, and my mother was coming with me.”

Beijing has a strict policy of repatriating North Koreans, regardless of whether they claim to be refugees. Defectors like Park and her mother have to live underground and are thus easy to exploit for sexual and financial gain. As Park tells it, she and her mother were innocents without any idea of the harms ahead. They were told to pretend they were unrelated, and for Park to say that she was 18. The first broker they encountered raped Park’s mother, and the women were both sold into servitude. No one had news of Eunmi.

To stay in touch with her mother and protect herself from a worse fate, Park, then 13, became the live-in “mistress” and business assistant of a different trafficker known as Hongwei. Her description of their interactions is by turns fascinating and grotesque, a textbook example of Stockholm syndrome. Hongwei raped Park but promised in simple Chinese: “You be my wife…. Mama come. Papa come. Sister come.”

By 2007, Hongwei had made good on his vow: Park and her mother were living with him when Park’s father, further devastated by undiagnosed colon cancer, arrived from Hyesan. When he died in 2009, Hong- wei arranged for his cremation and burial. Park herself placed the box of ashes in the ground, “toward the flowing river, so that my father could see it while he waited for me to return.” Over the next year, despite crackdowns on trafficking and his resulting loss of business, Hongwei would rescue Park from a kidnapper, reunite her with her mother, who had gone to work as a domestic laborer, and assist them in relocating to Shenyang. “He was not all bad. And he had been a miracle for me, really,” Park explains.

In Shenyang, she and her mother worked for an online video-chat business servicing lonely South Korean men. The labor was more emotional than sexual, Park writes, and gave them a measure of financial independence. All the while, they contrived an escape from China and learned about a missionary network that would help them do so. Mother and daughter journeyed with a few other North Koreans to Mongolia, a way station to Seoul. The trip by train, bus, taxi, and on foot across the Gobi Desert, Park writes, took four days in life-threatening cold. When the group arrived in Mongolia, nearly thwarted by police, they were treated more like criminals than refugees, subjected to strip searches and other indignities in a processing center. But they were eventually met by a South Korean representative and flown to Seoul.

Their assimilation into the South began at the Hanawon Resettlement Center near the South Korean capital. There, with about 600 other defectors, Park and her mother were trained in the “Seoul accent,” taught Korean history and anticommunist principles, and introduced to banking and the Internet. Once released from this resettlement purgatory, they were given a stipend to offset living expenses but struggled to adjust to life in South Korea. Park, still a teenager but long since out of school, became an obsessive autodidact and soon a minor television star.

In 2013, she and her mother received notice that Eunmi had arrived at Hanawon from China. Park was in the United States at the time, having traveled abroad with an American evangelical missionary group. Her TV work had by then become a part-time job, one that she parlayed into more serious speaking engagements as a commentator and witness to human-rights violations. She was invited to audit a class at Barnard last year and, this past September, gave brief testimony before the United Nations Human Rights Council. The speech was familiar, a cobbled-together excerpt from her book.

* * *

Park is a natural performer, her narrative deeply affecting. And to her credit, it’s one she recites with a sense of context. She devotes a few pages of In Order to Live to Korean history, from ancient times through the Japanese colonization and the devastation of two midcentury wars. Both the United States and the Soviet Union, she writes, are to blame for the “puppet leaders” they installed and the “senseless war” that killed some 3 million Koreans. These facts are worth repeating, and not only because they’re obscure to most Americans. The conservative South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of military dictator Park Chung-hee, is pushing for state-sanctioned textbooks that would weave a fantasia of modern Korea. When it comes to her own narrative, Yeonmi Park has also engaged in some revision. Anyone who’s followed her public trajectory and taken note of her statements in Korean and English over the years is nagged by doubts: How much of her story is true? And who is she really?

About a year before In Order to Live was published, journalist Mary Ann Jolley, who made a documentary about Park for the Australian news program Dateline, pointed out damning inconsistencies in her tale of captivity and highlighted Park’s connections to Liberty in North Korea and other “libertarian” nonprofits. As Jolley wrote in The Diplomat, an online magazine about the Asia-Pacific region, from one interview to the next, in articles and TV appearances, the plot of Park’s life would be modified or changed altogether. For instance, on Now on My Way to Meet You, Park and her mother spoke of acquiring smuggled haute couture from Japan and being shielded from the worst privations of the mid-1990s famine; in more sober settings with an activist agenda, Park stressed her family’s desperate poverty. As a child, did she really see a woman publicly executed for watching a Hollywood movie? Was her father imprisoned for 17 years, or was it a decade? Did she and her mother cross into China by themselves or with her father in tow? Did she single-handedly inter her father, and were his remains cremated or not?

Park responded to Jolley’s criticisms in The Diplomat by citing frequent “miscommunication because of a language barrier” and promising that she would “tell my full story” in her memoir. The book now stands as that definitive account, despite failing to address most of the questions raised by Jolley. Park does attempt to explain her mother’s fancy accessories: “I did not mention that those handbags were secondhand knockoffs from China. Or that our affluent lifestyle did not last for long.” But at the end of the book, she locates other discrepancies in the whirlwind of interviews that followed her speech in Ireland: “I never used a translator, never thought that the journalists might not understand…. I also believed that by changing a few details about my family’s escape to China, I could continue to hide the fact that I had been trafficked”—despite the fact that she’d discussed her trafficking on that Dublin stage. “I was reacting, improvising like a jazz musician playing the same melody a little differently each time, unaware that there might be people out there keeping score.” (Park, through a representative at Penguin, declined to be interviewed or respond to questions for this article.)

Among these scorekeepers, Park writes, was Kim Jong-un. She recalls how, in early 2015, the DPRK released two YouTube videos attacking her as a Western propagandist. “They had sifted through my interviews and attacked me for supposed inconsistencies in my quotes,” she writes. “Worst of all, they paraded my relatives and former friends to denounce me and my family.” Defector accounts are uniquely difficult to judge, immune to fact-checking due to the closed nature of the DPRK. Yet the North’s web-enabled assault bolstered Park’s reputation and shielded her from scrutiny. The geopolitics of North Korea permit no nuance: To be an enemy of Kim Jong-un is to be a hero(ine) in the rest of the world.

At the beginning of 2015, prominent refugee Shin Dong-hyuk was accused of telling lies in his best-selling 2012 memoir, Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West, written by American journalist Blaine Harden. Under pressure from fellow defectors in South Korea who’d questioned his account, Shin admitted misrepresenting when and where he’d been imprisoned and at what age he’d suffered particular acts of torture. Leftist Koreans and Korean Americans, who have criticized the human-rights framework for undermining reunification efforts—and, in the words of the Korea Policy Institute’s Christine Hong, providing “extensive space to defector testimony without weighing the perils of an over-reliance on this sort of informational base”—weren’t surprised. Shin, like countless other refugees, ascribed the inaccuracies in his memoir to the effects of trauma. But how to selectively claw back a story that had already been published, translated into two dozen languages, and made the centerpiece of a United Nations human-rights inquiry?

South Korea, a nation of 50 million people, has to date resettled some 27,000 talbukja (meaning “one who left the North”). The popularity of Now on My Way to Meet You reveals a hunger for first-person accounts from the DPRK, even as employers and landlords—indoctrinated in the South’s anticommunist gospel—discriminate against the Northerners in their midst. As Park once explained on a news-magazine broadcast: “I came to South Korea with a feeling of deep kinship, but people here perceive me only as a talbukja, someone of a different nationality.… ‘You’re not a spy, right?’… So then, to which country do I belong?”

Park has journeyed from North Korea to China, Mongolia, and Seoul. Now, as an international activist and author, she has managed a third escape—from the confines and emotional statelessness of life in South Korea. On her Facebook page, she posts inspirational quotes and globe-trotting selfies; posed snapshots, too, with British model Cara Delevingne and the parents of Malala Yousafzai. She claims to be building awareness and advancing the goal of peaceful regime change by dint of her public persona.

In the early chapters of her book, she describes her father’s innate entrepreneurial skill: “I think my father would have become a millionaire if he had grown up in South Korea or the United States.… Almost anywhere else, business would have been my father’s vocation. But in North Korea, it was simply a means to survive.” Just as her parents plied their wares in the black markets of Pyongyang and Hyesan, Park has become a vendor in the marketplace of celebrity culture and international human rights. It’s a trade she’s intent on mastering—on television and the world stage.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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