Survivor

How ‘Titanic ’Helped This Brave Young Woman Escape North Korea’s Totalitarian State

The 21-year-old North Korea defector Yeonmi Park watched her father die, her friend’s mother executed, and much more horror. In a candid interview, she compares the brutality of life in North Korea to the Holocaust.

10.31.14 9:45 AM ET

Yeonmi Park was four years old when she learned to silence her feelings and free will. Her mother warned her that the birds at school could hear her when she whispered, that her thoughts were never hers alone.

Five years later, she watched as her friend’s mother was executed. Growing up in North Korea, she’d been taught that giving one’s life for the totalitarian Kim dynasty was the most honorable thing one could do. She had seen public executions before, but this one would haunt her for years to come.

The woman stood accused of watching a contraband James Bond DVD and leant it to friends—a crime Yeonmi herself had committed, and one that could only be redeemed in death. It’s more than a decade later and she calmly recalls the shots ringing out, followed by an explosion of blood.

“When you grow up in North Korea, the only thing you know is what the Kim regime teaches you, so watching movies is one of the only ways to learn about the outside world,” Yeonmi, now 21, tells me.

We are in a hotel in Oslo, Norway, moments after Yeonmi gave a speech at the sixth annual Oslo Freedom Forum, a gathering of dissidents and activists from around the world, in which she chronicled her escape from North Korea’s repressive dictatorship with her family—a harrowing, two-year journey through China and Mongolia—ultimately joining some 20,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea.

Born in 1993, Yeonmi is part of North Korea’s Black Market Generation (the “Jangmadang”), millennials who grew up when illegal private trading of smuggled goods was taking off in the reclusive, communist country. North Korea had plunged into economic decline in the ‘80s and ‘90s, resulting in the “arduous march” famine of the late ‘90s and the death, according to some estimates, of up to 3.5 million people.

Oslo Freedom Forum

It was a time when many North Koreans turned to private markets to survive, trading not only currency, food, and clothing, but also USB drives, TVs, and bootleg DVDs. 

“A turning point in my life was when I watched the movie Titanic,” Yeonmi told the audience at the Oslo Freedom Forum. “It wasn’t propaganda but a story about people willing to die for love. It made me realize that I was controlled by the regime. I was not aware, like a fish is not aware of water. North Koreans don’t know the concept of freedom or human rights. They don’t know that they are slaves.”

And it remains a brutal reality today. Last November, Kim Jong-un ordered the public execution of 80 people in one day, many of whom were being punished for watching South Korean films or possessing illegal reading material like the Bible. And just this week, reports surfaced that the regime recently executed 10 party officials for watching South Korean soap operas.

Yeonmi had seen other films (“Pretty Woman”, “Snow White”, and “Cinderella” were among her favorites), and even became a fan WWE wrestling before she was a teenager. “It’s a way of rebelling against the regime,” she says of watching foreign films. “It shows how desperate North Koreans are, and how brave.”

When we meet, Yeonmi is impeccably dressed in a red pea coat and heels, her long hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her eyes are saucer-like, her face animated with a permanent smile. She is disarmingly gracious and warm (she frequently grabs my hand or arm when telling a story) and has a sharp, self-deprecating sense of humor.

It is hard to believe that this effervescent 21-year-old girl only recently was a prisoner of the Kim regime and only last January learned to speak English—by watching American television (“I watched a lot of Ellen DeGeneres and Friends, Season 1 through 10, 24 episodes every season, and I watched them over and over again. I also listened to lots of Ted Talks, and that’s when my English really improved.”).

But the past is ever present in Yeonmi’s life. She recalls that during the famine her father illegally sold gold and silver. But in 2002, the Park family was torn apart when he was arrested for illegal trading and sentenced to 17 years in prison.

As is common in North Korea, family members of “enemies of the people” are presumed guilty by association. Her mother was interrogated and sent to prison for two years. Yeonmi, then nine, and her 11-year-old sister, Eunmi, lived on their own during that time, eating rice, dragonflies, frogs, and grass to survive. After three years, Yeonmi’s father bribed his way out of prison but the brutal prison conditions had taken a toll on his health. He was diagnosed with colon cancer. 

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The Park family was reunited, but because of their father’s “crimes,” their lives were forever altered. “That meant I could never dream of having a good job, or of marrying someone who came from a good background,” Yeonmi says. “I would be a farmer forever.”

In 2006, they moved to the countryside, close to the Chinese border. Yeonmi’s father was forced to forage for food, on a lucky day returning with black, frozen potatoes. “We couldn’t maintain our lives there because we were so hungry,” she says. “We had to defect.” 

They had been plotting an escape to China, but before the family finalized their plans to leave together, Eunmi crossed the border with a friend. Yeonmi had been hospitalized at the time for a stomach illness, likely from her diet of rotten potatoes.

“My sister told us she was thinking about escaping, but I was very sick and we didn’t think she would leave without us.” Of course, as North Korea’s only regional ally, China has maintained a notoriously cozy relationship with the hermit kingdom, and refugees who make it there face constant threat of arrest and deportation.

On the night of March 30, 2007, Yeonmi and her mother set out to join Eunmi. Guided by a people smuggler, they crossed a frozen river that separated the two countries. “I was still very sick, but I was too scared to feel the pain. I remember running, running, running,” Yeonmi says. “All I could think about was how I didn’t want to get shot, I didn’t want to die like my friend’s mother.”

When they arrived in the Chinese province of Jilin, local authorities refused to help them find Eunmi. One demanded to have sex with Yeonmi, who was barely 14, and threatened to send her and her mother back to North Korea if she didn’t oblige. When her mother begged for mercy, she was raped instead. “She told me to turn around, but I could hear her crying. It seemed like he had done this a thousand times.”

Soon they were joined by Yeonmi’s father. The three of them lived together in this part of China for a year and a half, finding shelter in a one-room house with no electricity or running water. Yeonmi gathered clothes from the trash, while her parents collected water from a dripping tap. Her father grew weaker and finally passed away early one morning in 2008. “We couldn’t even afford to give him painkillers.”

Giving him a proper burial meant risking arrest by Chinese police, so Yeonmi and her mother bribed locals to help them dispose of his body. In the middle of the night, Yeonmi buried his remains. “I couldn’t even cry because I was afraid of being sent back to North Korea,” she says.

Life in China was not much better than life in North Korea. “We didn’t have any money and knew that we would have died there.” With five other people, they decided to try to reach South Korea on foot through the Gobi desert into Mongolia, where they hoped to meet South Korean diplomats who had helped other refugees from the north. They ended up crawling for much of the journey, scaling electric fences and fending off wild animals in freezing conditions. 

When they reached Mongolia, police threatened to send them back to China. Yeonmi remembers one of the officials prodding her stomach with a gun. “I saw this in the movies!” she says, laughing and shaking her head. “Now I’m laughing, but I almost peed at the time. I had seen so many people be shot, seen their heads explode and their brains spill out.”

She and her mother didn’t expect any mercy, so they threatened to cut their own throats with razor blades they’d hidden inside their sleeves if the guards sent them back to China. “I told my mother I wanted to die with her,” she says. “I would rather have killed myself than be shot by this man.”

But as soon as she pressed the razor blade against her neck, the guard lowered the gun. Yeonmi and her mother were taken to a detention center in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, where Yeonmi was forced to remove all of her clothes every day for months. “I was a little girl and felt so ashamed. I kept thinking, Why do these people have the privilege to control me like this? I’m human too, but I wasn’t treated like one.”

Three months later, they were handed over to South Korean officials and, on April 1, 2009, boarded a plane for Seoul. “I thought North Korea might shoot down the plane, I thought they could hear my thoughts,” she says, grinning.

She laughs as she recalls using the restroom in the Seoul airport. “I had never seen a toilet like that! I had never seen faucets that turned on and off by themselves! I was so depressed watching all of these other people wash their hands!” She was obsessed with the flower-printed, scented toilet paper. “I used only a little bit and then I stole the rest of the roll. I thought it was so special!”

It would be a long time before Yeonmi would feel free of North Korea’s tyranny. She and her mother spent two months in an interrogation center in South Korea before they were sent to live in a derelict town in the countryside. Yeonmi was forbidden from using computers in the town center because she was a foreigner. “That was the first time I realized I would endure a lot of discrimination,” she says. “You feel for a second, ‘Why did I do this? I thought life would be better in China.’ I thought life would be better in South Korea.”

She was 16 when she enrolled in middle school, but her classmates teased her relentlessly. “They treated me like an alien,” she says, explaining that North Koreans are viciously stereotyped in South Korea. “I wanted to show them that North Koreans weren’t stupid.” 

Determined, she dropped out and taught herself everything from the elementary school level through high school. “I read and read and read, even when I didn’t know what I was reading.” A year later, she enrolled in Dongguk University, where she is now a junior studying criminal justice.

Yeonmi didn’t bother making friends during her first year and instead she buried herself in literature. She remembers crying all night after finishing George Orwell’s Animal Farm. “It made complete sense to me. I was still so angry and hateful at this time because of the way I’d been treated,” she says. She credits Gandhi and Nelson Mandela for teaching her about compassion. “Freedom made me a new human being.”

It wasn’t until very recently that Yeonmi fully grasped what freedom meant. When professors asked what she wanted to do with her life, she didn’t know how to respond. “I was so used to having no free will, I wanted them to tell me what to do! It took me three years to realize that freedom is a choice and I have to be responsible for the consequences. I think this year I have finally understood it, that all human beings have [the same] rights.”

Five years after arriving in South Korea, Yeonmi is a media fellow at Freedom Factory Co, a for-profit think tank based in Seoul, where she raises awareness about the political oppression North Koreans face and the plight of refugees who weren’t as fortunate as she was. She lives with her sister in the South Korean capital (the two were reunited in April). Eunmi, now 23, had made it into South Korea through China and Thailand.

“We missed each other for seven years, during that period where we both became women, so we are trying to get to know each other more,” Yeonmi says. “She still thinks of me as a baby, so she’s very protective of me and doesn’t like it when I wear makeup! That’s pretty much what we fight about.”

Yeonmi is also active on social media, and is shocked by some of the criticism from Americans on Twitter. She pulls out her phone to show me her latest Twitter war with an American scholar who has accused her of “dehumanizing” North Korea because she supports sanctions on the communist nation proposed by Congress last year, including an investigation into human rights abuses committed by the Kim dynasty.

“I can’t believe that these people are so educated. I respect the criticism, and I know that nothing is white and black. But [the situation in North Korea] is white and black.”

Earlier this year, a United Nations report concluded that human rights violations in North Korea were “strikingly similar” to the atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II, citing torture, mass starvation, rape, forced abortion, and execution.

“After the Holocaust, everyone said that we’d never repeat that history again. But we’re repeating it right now in North Korea,” says Yeonmi.

But she is confident that her generation will see a brighter future. “Even though the situation there looks unchangeable, it’s not. I think we are empowering refugees and there will be many more people like me who defect. And I strongly believe that lies don’t have power. That’s a lesson we’ve learned from history. The truth will win in the end.”