Many people say their lives have been filled with misfortune and difficulty. Then again most people have not experienced the world as Yeonmi Park. Park was born under the regime of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il in 1993. Her father was a civil servant in the small village of Hyesan. Her mother was a nurse for the North Korean Army. Park has one sister a few years older. By all accounts, her family was wealthy compared to most of the people in her village.
The family’s wealth was not enough to provide food during a famine, and Park’s father established a smuggling operation selling metals to the Chinese. Unfortunately the scheme was discovered and Park’s father was arrested, convicted and sentenced to a hard labor camp. To protect the family, Park’s parents decided to leave North Korea and escape the brutal and oppressive conditions by fleeing first to China, then onto South Korea.
Park’s father was originally unable to accompany his family, and her older sister left early and without saying anything. Park and her mother crossed a frozen river and three mountain ranges to get into China. Conditions there were not much better, and the pair was regularly raped and abused by their Chinese human-traffickers. Also, the pair had to maintain a low profile since Chinese authorities would deport them back to North Korea if they were found. Park’s father was finally able to rejoin his family in China but died due to inoperable colon cancer. Fearing arousing suspicion, Park’s then 45 year-old father was buried quitely in the countryside without ceremony.
After living hidden in a Christian mission and with the help of the Chinese and South Korean missionaries, Park, and her mother set out for Mongolia where they could seek refuge in the South Korean embassy. Crossing the Gobi Desert was an arduous ordeal, but the pair were finally able to present themselves to the border guards who initially were going to deny Park and her mother into the country. The pair had already prepared for this possibility and had a mutual pledge to kill themselves if not allowed to cross the border. It was that tearful exchange of goodbyes that convinced the guards to allow them to enter Mongolia. They, however, had to submit themselves to living in a refugee camp while the South Koreans processed their entry and granted asylum.
Finally arriving in Seoul, Park and her mother faced difficulty in adjusting to their new-found freedom. They had to work as servers in restaurants and as store clerks. Park was able to eventually began studying criminal justice at Dongguk University.
Today on Independent.com, Park is an outspoken critic of the human rights abuses suffered by North Koreans at the hands of that government. Under first Kim Jong-il and now his son Kim Jong-un, food storages are common. There are no freedoms of speech, press, and religion. Protesters are routinely arrested, tortured and even killed.
Park has retold her story many times in the western press, and in front of human rights assemblies around the world. She has been labeled a traitor by North Korea and is repeatedly denounced. Still she believes Kim Jong-un is a cruel dictator deserving of punishment for his crimes of human rights abuses.