At the age of thirteen, Yeonmi Park and her mother crossed the frozen river between North Korea and China in the dead of night to what they thought was freedom. What follows, is a harrowing tale of extreme suffering and self-preservation suffered by Park while still very much a child, having to forcibly grow up to deal with the dangers and impossible decisions she had to face.
From being the child mistress of a Chinese human trafficker to secretly burying her father in the dead of night on a nearby mountain, to walking through the Gobi desert where winter temperatures can reach extremes of −30 °C, following the stars and a broken compass to Mongolia, Park’s story is a heartbreaking tale of extremes. After rising to global fame from delivering her emotional speech at the One Young World 2014 Summit in Dublin, Park has since become an active and well-known advocate for victims of human trafficking in China and human rights, as well as studying at a bachelors degree in Economics at the Columbia School of General Studies in NYC. At the age of 23, Park has achieved and gone through so much that it is hard to believe she had the bravery and determination to write In Order to Live, her memoir which details her traumatic experiences of abuse, social isolation and extreme suffering as well as her amazing triumphs.
Being a similar age to Park, I found reading her memoir heartbreaking and humbling, reading what she had experienced in such a short lifetime felt impossible to even grasp let alone understand, and me feel very young in comparison. In Order to Live is a memoir that not only raises issues about the suffering and oppression of the people of North Korea by the Kim dictators, but also about human rights issues further afield, such as the underground human trafficking network between North Korea and China by which unmarried Chinese men can buy North Korean wives for little money. The memoir also shines a light on the problems faced by foreigners entering a country from a complete different culture. Living in South Korea, Park had to learn to settle into a completely new country, a trying experience made even more difficult by the extraordinary lengths that she went through to get to South Korea being belittled by South Koreans seeing her as an “animal-thing”, “stupid and backward and untrustworthy”. It is a lesson that all of us must remember, especially at the moment with rise of nationalism over the last few years – you shouldn’t judge someone without knowing their story.
Aside from its political and social concerns, what I like most about Park’s memoir is how it is meditative and reflective. Although some elements seem romanticised, it is clear from the tone of her work that she has thought over her past experiences and trauma in detail, going over scenes that she had not, up to that point, processed emotionally. Not only does she relay her childhood, her journey to China, and eventually to South Korea and the experiences in between, but also stories from her mother and fellow defectors, so what you get is an overall sense of the system at large by which North Korean defectors have to go through extreme distress and hardship simply to live a life where there is enough food on the table each night. She also relays not just what happened, but how she was feeling and thinking at the time, admitting where her ethical understanding or view was in that moment, such as her understanding of religion, which is an interesting development to track through the memoirs, as in North Korea religion is banned. Park’s first experience with faith was through the Christian missionaries who helped secure her escape to South Korea, later developing her own sense of faith as her mind is allowed to think for itself and her world is opened up to new ideas.
Interestingly, Park also does not completely condemn the entirety of her North Korean upbringing. Although she sheds light on the cruelty of the Kim regime and the poverty and famine of the 1990s into which she was born, she does reflect on the aspects of her homeland that she misses, such as the quieter way of life in rural North Korea, where her neighbours helped her and her sister suffer the harsh winters while their mother was away. She reflects that it wasn’t until she left North Korea that she realised that ordinary people could be possible of causing human suffering, not just officials of the ruling power, becoming a victim of modern slavery by those she thought were helping to ensure her freedom.
Reading In Order to Live is a testimony to not only the extraordinary strength that arises from those who suffer extreme hardship, but also to the human side of every news story we hear each day. Recent reports of North Korea’s current nuclear activity have somewhat shrouded the individuals for whom the Kim regime is the oppressing force which governs their lives, and can lead them to risk their own lives to escape from it. While reading these stories of North Korea trying to square up to the major international powers, or China becoming the fastest growing economy, we should remember the dark systems at play of modern slavery and human suffering behind the news, those who suffer unimaginable trauma just to achieve a better life than that they are currently living. Yeonmi Park though her powerful memoir reminded me that there is always a human side to every story, there are always those who are risking everything they have to have a life like the ones we take for granted each day. There are always those who are fighting with all their strength simply in order to live.