Yeonmi Park’s family paid around 3,000 North Korean won for a pack of DVDs that contained a bootleg of Titanic. In the early 2000s, she remembers, that was the cost of several pounds of rice in her home city of Hyesan—a significant sacrifice in a starving country.
But of all the tween girls who became obsessed with the star-crossed romance of Jack and Rose, Park was one of the very few who saw it as downright revolutionary. “In North Korea they had taught us that you die for the regime. In this movie it was like, whoa, he’s dying for a girl he loves,” she says. “I thought, how can anyone make this and not be killed?”
Titanic was hardly Park’s only foreign-video experience. Her mother sold DVDs. Her family would put its tapes and discs in a plastic bag and bury it beneath a potted plant to hide it from the police.
But of all those illegal encounters with foreign culture, Titanic was somehow the film that made Park ask herself questions about freedom and the outside world. “It made me feel like something was off with our system,” she says in fluent English, which she perfected by watching the entire run of Friends dozens of times.
Park escaped from North Korea in 2007. Now a 21-year-old activist based in Seoul, she’s part of what’s known in Korea as the jangmadang sedae: the black-market generation.