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.