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North Korean defector Yeonmi Park speaks at Duke about her journey to US

Author and activist Yeonmi Park, who defected from North Korea when she was 13 years old, shared her story about the brutality of living under the regime and how she escaped to become a U.S. citizen and political advocate.

The Tuesday event, titled “From North Korea to America: Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness,” was hosted by the Ciceronian Society and sponsored by the Young America’s Foundation. 

Park said that the first lesson her mother taught her was to “don’t even whisper, because birds and mice could hear you.” She told the audience that if she said “one wrong word” in North Korea, she would not only be killed, but three to eight generations of her family would be found guilty by association and die as well. 

“In North Korea, every song, every book, every movie, literally everything has been about the worshiping of dictators and the party,” Park said. “We are not allowed to tell a human story in North Korea.”

Park moved to the U.S. in 2014 to complete her memoir, “In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom,” which was published the following year. 

A prominent figure in the conservative political landscape, Park makes frequent media appearances and visits college campuses across the country to share her story. In August 2019, she delivered a TED Talk titled “What I learned about freedom after escaping North Korea,” and she currently runs a YouTube channel with over 1 million subscribers.

Journalists and North Korean history scholars have questioned the veracity of Park’s accounts of conditions in North Korea and the consistency of her stories. Park has previously attributed these inconsistencies to English translation issues.

Park described receiving widespread praise after criticizing former President Donald Trump for meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and “legitimizing dictatorship in North Korea.” Up to this point, Park felt her legitimacy to challenge American politics was never questioned.

“As soon as I criticized the woke, now I’m a liar,” Park said in reference to backlash she has received in recent years over her statements on cancel culture and political correctness, such as criticizing left-wing indoctrination in U.S. schools as the “biggest threat that our nation, and our civilization is facing.” 

Park has previously stated that she does not identify as a conservative. She addressed at the Tuesday event that she is often “branded as a Republican, right-wing person,” and questioned how she would know those terms even existed without coming to the U.S. in the first place.

Throughout her speech, Park oscillated between light-hearted jokes about American culture and tear-filled accounts of abuse and human trafficking.

Park said seeing dead bodies became “as common as looking at a tree in America,” describing how she watched a boy die of starvation while still living in North Korea. 

She also described how children would eat rats out of desperation and often died of disease.

“Starvation is a tool for dictatorship in North Korea. If you’re full in your tummy, what are you going to think about? You think about the meaning of life. You think about freedom,” Park said. “If you’re on the verge of dying from not having food, the only thing that consumes your mind is finding food.”

Park shared that at the age of 13 — around the time that her older sister escaped to China — she became ill. She claimed that while being treated at a North Korean hospital, the nurse injected every patient with the same needle. 

She said that doctors once believed that she had appendicitis, but when they began operating on her, they discovered that she was actually suffering from infection and malnutrition. “Embarrassed,” the doctors removed her appendix and stitched her up without painkillers. 

Park expressed that her escape to China was not motivated by freedom, a concept she claims she did not understand while living in North Korea. Rather, it was motivated by desperation.

“It wasn’t the idea of self-expression or being an activist. [It was] simply hoping that I could find a bowl of rice,” she said.

Park reported that a man helped her cross the border to China, which she claims was being guarded by soldiers following a “shoot to kill” policy.

According to Park, she and her mother were purchased as sex slaves once they arrived in China. Park said that after two years of repeated rape from the ages of 13 to 15, Christian missionaries aided her escape to Mongolia, and that she crossed the Gobi Desert in 2009, traversing through subzero temperatures.

Park characterized the chance of completing the journey out of China as “not even one percent.” Once she arrived in Mongolia, she said she begged for her freedom until she was sent to South Korea.

After two months of interrogations in South Korea, Park recollected experiencing her first taste of freedom after “never [having] authority over my body or my mind or anything.” 

Eventually, Park decided she wanted to pursue an education, leading her to attend Dongguk University in Seoul, South Korea to study criminal justice. Once she relocated to the U.S. in 2014, she transferred to Columbia University.

While at Columbia, Park recalled receiving emails before some classes warning that topics such as slavery or colonialism would be covered in the discussion. She noted that this experience caused her to question the direction that the U.S. was heading towards.

“If it triggers you in any way, don’t do the readings, don’t even come to class,” Park claimed the emails said.

Park also cited Columbia as her first exposure to “safe spaces.” Park said that she was surprised that these spaces were meant for “shielding people from certain ideas,” rather than providing physical safety. 

She expressed admiration for the protection of individual liberty she feels the U.S. affords her, even as she believes the “good intention of lacking certain ideas” is pushing the U.S. to become more “monolithic, thinking like North Korea [does].” 

“The Constitution thinks that my rights, which came from God, no state can take away from me,” she said. “It gave me a platform like this to speak.”

Michael Austin profile
Michael Austin
| Associate News Editor

Michael Austin is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor for the news department.  

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