North Korean Defector: “We Were Overwhelmed By Freedom”

Yeonmi Park did not know what freedom was until she was an adult. Raised under the Kim dynasty in North Korea, Yeonmi’s family was impoverished. When faced with starvation, her father turned to an illegal products trade that led to his imprisonment. Face to face with a slow death, Yeonmi’s mother led her family to defect from North Korea. Yeonmi’s mother hired human smugglers to lead her family from North Korea into China. She knew that life in China would be difficult, but she did not believe it would be as harsh as living in North Korea. Living in North Korea meant living a life without self-expression and in constant fear. “My mother told me to keep my thoughts and feelings to myself,” Yeonmi recalled on NY Times. “She said if I spoke, the birds would hear me.” Yeonmi had witnessed the execution of her friend’s mother and countless others. Their crimes ranged from watching Western films to selling goods illegally for profit. The smugglers ran Yeonmi and her mother through the country. Yeonmi recalled running and feeling ill, but was warned that she must continue. When Yeonmi and her mother reached China, they were faced with even more horror. One of the smugglers tried to rape the then 13-year-old girl, but her mother begged for him to take her in place of Yeonmi. The two were subsequently enslaved. Yeonmi was forced into marriage and life as a prostitute. A few years later, the captor granted Yeonmi and her mother their freedom. The two journeyed to South Korea where they hoped to begin finally living. It was difficult for the pair to adjust. “We were overwhelmed,” Yeonmi said. “We did not comprehend freedom. We did not believe such democracy existed. We had food. That was the happiest thing for me. There are so many things that exist here that we did not even have words for in North Korea. Many jobs and emotions.” Yeonmi held down a variety of jobs before she enrolled in Dongguk University. She studied in criminal justice. Yeonmi later penned a memoir about her journey to freedom and became a human rights activist.

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