When Yeon-Mi Park was 9 years old, she and everyone in her North Korean village were forced to watch in horror the execution of a woman for the crime of watching illegal DVDs, she says. The victim was the mother of one of her friends.
Park was born in Hyesan, the daughter of a government official, whose job provided the family with relative stability and protection. Then came the famine, and to survive her father set up a small illegal trading business smuggling goods into China, says Park.
“In 2004 my whole world came crashing down. My father, my hero, got arrested for his illegal trading business.” He was sent to a hard-labor camp, and the family was marked. “We had no real future anymore.”
So, Park said, she and her mother decided to sneak over the border into China, where a trader spotted them. In exchange for not giving them away, he demanded sex with Park, then just 13. “My mom offered to be raped in order to protect me,” she said simply.
Later, after her father had rejoined them in China but died of lung cancer, Park and her mother met up with a group heading to Mongolia.
“We walked and crawled across the Gobi desert, evading Chinese police, kidnappers and wild animals. We followed the compass, but it broke, so we followed the stars to freedom . . . we wanted to live as human beings,” she said.