Twenty-one-year-old Yeonmi Park escaped the prison nation of North Korea by sneaking into China and walking with her mother across the Gobi Desert into South Korea. Her journey is laden with the bodies of old friends, relatives, and the thousands of victims of public executions she was forced to witness.
Park has now become a human rights activist, traveling the world to tell her story and demand that international attention go to the millions of victims of the North Korean communist dictatorship. In an extensive interview with the Irish Independent, she tells her story and expresses outrage at the global fascination with Kim Jong Un’s appearance, an attention denied to those he has killed.
In the interview, Park highlights a number of details in North Korean law previously unknown. The extreme secretive country kills three generations of family members in retaliation for any comment perceived as insubordinate to the communist regime, for example. Public executions, she explains, are “celebrations” of the defeat of enemies, and both not attending and expressing grief at the death of the person being killed are crimes.
“It’s unimaginable how difficult it is, really undescribable. They are not living there, they are surviving there,” she explains, noting that one of her friends’ mothers was publicly executed when she was 9 for “watching a James Bond movie.” When both her parents were sent to prison, she and her older, 11-year-old sister had to fend for themselves.
She understood why no one in her community tried to help the two girls. “People were dying there, they don’t care… I saw the bodies on the street and I didn’t care because I was going to die.” She noted that, with the exception of a few high-ranking communist officials, “Everyone is starving, most of the people are just hungry.”
Her trip out of North Korea led to even more misery. In China, a man who caught them threatened to report them to police– resulting in a return to North Korea– if he could not have sex with Park. Her mother refused to let this happen to her 13-year-old daughter, offering herself instead. “I saw my mother raped before my eyes,” she laments.
They finally decided to leave China as well, walking across the Gobi Desert to South Korea with no food or water and very little money. They survived, and Park has vowed to be a voice for her people while they remain imprisoned. “Every journey, every interview I do is risky, but it doesn’t matter how risky it is, or how dangerous it is,” she says. “It’s not about me.”
Park finds the outside world’s fascination with Kim Jong Un a particularly problematic hurdle to overcome as an activist. “He killed 80 people in one day for watching a South Korean movie or [sic] with the Bible,” she notes, “Crazily, we are talking about Kim Jong Un’s disappearance– nobody asks, where are the North Korean people who died? Millions of people died for ridiculous reasons.”
“It’s the same thing as the Holocaust,” she notes, a crime against humanity widely ignored while it went on. “We ignored it, and we said ‘never again,’ but now it’s happening again, and we are ignoring it.”
Park is in Ireland to speak at the nation’s One Young World summit at the National Convention Centre in Dublin. She told most of her story before a large audience in traditional North Korean garb. Watch her moving speech below: