Yeonmi Park is a young woman who fled North Korea through Mongolia. Border guards had surrounded her group of refugees as it meandered through the Gobi desert, and told them they would be immediately sent back to China.
Yeonmi and her mother begged for their lives. When that failed, they tried something altogether more radical. They grabbed the small knives they had brought and thrust them to their throats, threatening to commit suicide unless the guards let them stay in Mongolia. ‘I thought it was the end of my life. We were saying goodbye to one another,’ Yeonmi says.
Their actions, though, proved effective. Yeonmi and her mother were taken into custody and after 15 days were transferred to a detention center in Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital. Several weeks later they were handed over to South Korean officials and one day Yeonmi stood at Ulan Bator’s Chinggis Khaan airport preparing to board a plane for Seoul. It was her first time flying and her new-found freedom had not yet sunk in. ‘Oh my God,’ she thought when Mongolian customs officials waved her through. ‘They didn’t stop me.’
A few hours later the plane touched down at Incheon airport in Seoul. Yeonmi stepped off the passenger jet wearing a shabby prison uniform. She remembers gasping at the sight of the moving walkways – a contraption unimaginable in her broken and impoverished homeland – and the immaculate lavatory facilities. ‘It was the first time I had seen a fancy rest room. I thought, “It’s so clean. Do I wash my hands in the [lavatory bowl]?’’ ’ she says. ‘Everything was shiny. I’d never seen anything like it.’
In April she was finally reunited with the sister she had long feared was dead; Eunmi, now 23, had reached South Korea via China and Thailand.
Still Yeonmi feels she has not entirely escaped the clutches of Kim Jong-un’s regime. South Korea allocates local detectives to keep an eye on all newly arrived defectors, and in May Yeonmi received a call from the official handling her case. He warned her that her name had been added to a ‘target list’ of outspoken defectors that the North Korean regime wanted to eliminate. The revelation made her more angry than scared.
The detective and Yeonmi’s mother urged her to stop criticizing Kim Jong-un. But she ignored them, convinced that she, as someone who had suffered the same fate, now had a moral obligation to draw attention to the thousands of women risking sexual violence and murder as they tried to escape North Korea.