“My journey to freedom is not a hero’s journey,” Yeonmi Park told an enthusiastic and emotional audience at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. “I didn’t escape for freedom,” Park said during her lecture. “I escaped for a bowl of rice.”
In her speech, “What It Means to be Free,” Park told the audience of her experiences growing up in North Korea, a land where people are repressed and where citizens have no idea what they’re missing because of government propaganda and a system designed to keep them in the dark and powerless.
“North Korea is indescribable and unimaginable, because it’s a different universe,” Park stated. In her homeland people are not allowed to wear jeans or die their hair, and can be executed for watching a movie. “There’s no way I can use human words to describe what’s happening in the country, and what’s happened for almost seven decades.”
Young North Koreans are taught that their country is the best nation in the world, and that the United States and Japan are evil.
“Being in North Korea is not only physically not free, but emotionally not free. You are not allowed to think for yourself. The very first thing my mother taught me was not to even whisper; even the birds and mice can hear you whisper.” She added, “Every basic freedom is denied in North Korea” and that any idea that could promote free will or individualism is kept out of all conversations — public and private. “There is no Romeo and Juliet stories. There are no books about romance, or no movies about romance.”
She recalled viewing as a young girl a pirated copy of the James Cameron film, Titanic — which is banned in North Korea — and found it “shocking,” noting, “The man in the movie dies for love, he’s not dying for the leader and the regime and the party. I just couldn’t process it.” But on further reflection, she realized the film was filled with humanity. “It gave me my first taste of freedom.”
Park went on to describe, in terms that made her and the audience emotional at times, how her family — once relatively privileged — struggled after her father was arrested for smuggling gold, silver and nickel to Chinese traders to keep the family alive during a relentless famine. On the night of March 30, 2007, with the aid of human traffickers, Park and her mother crossed a frozen river and three mountains to get across the Chinese border. One of the traffickers threatened to report Park and her mother to the authorities if Park didn’t have sex with him. Her mother offered herself instead, and was raped in front of Yeonmi, then 13.
Park was sold for $260, “because I was a virgin, because I was young. I was not a human being, I was a product. And they were negotiating the price in front of me, but all I thought (is) ‘I’m hungry, I want to eat something.’ It’s animal instinct. When you’re hungry you don’t think of anything else — you’re gonna die.”
When her father joined his family in China he was sick and died shortly afterward from untreated colon cancer. Sitting next to his dead body early the morning he passed away, Yeonmi Park said, “I couldn’t even cry because I was afraid people might hear me.”
She told of burying her father’s ashes, and of how she was finally freed by the trafficker and she and her mother met with Christian missionaries in China. “And they told me there’s a way you can be free. And I asked for first time — because I didn’t know what ‘free’ was; I never heard of the word in North Korea, we don’t have a word for freedom or human rights — ‘What do you mean I will be free?’ And she told me it means you can watch movies, it means you can wear jeans, nobody’s going to arrest you, and I thought, that’s great. I’m gonna risk my life for that.”
By the light of stars, she and her mother fled to South Korea through Mongolia.