What does a nuclear power with the fifth largest army in the world have to fear from a pint-sized university student in a pink frock? A great deal, apparently.
On 31 January 2015, a North Korean government-run website posted an 18-minute video titled The Human Rights Propaganda Puppet, Yeon-mi Park, which denounced the charismatic 21-year-old North Korean defector. It was the latest attack in a smear campaign aimed at silencing Yeon-mi, a human rights activist and outspoken critic of the world’s most repressive and secretive regime.
Last fall, Yeon-mi took the podium at the One Young World Summit in Dublin, and became a YouTube sensation. Looking like a fragile porcelain doll dressed in a flowing pink hanbok (traditional Korean dress), Yeon-mi told a harrowing and heartbreaking story: “North Korea is an unimaginable country,” she began in halting English. … When she was nine years old she saw her friend’s mother publicly executed for a minor infraction.
When she was 13, she fled into China, only to see her mother raped by a human trafficker. Her father later died in China, where she buried his ashes in secret. “I couldn’t even cry,” she said. “I was afraid to be sent back to North Korea.”
Eventually Yeon-mi and her mother escaped into Mongolia by walking and crawling across the frozen Gobi desert.
By the time Yeon-mi had finished with a plea to “shed light on the darkest place in the world”, the whole audience was in tears and on its feet. Yeon-mi became the human face of North Korea’s oppressed.
Attacks on prominent North Korean defectors are nothing new. These individuals regularly endure charges that they lie and exaggerate. Occasionally there are death threats. But the regime’s most common weapon against its critics is character assassination.
Read more about Yeon-mi Park
As Yeon-mi’s “collaborator” – a publishing term for a writer who helps an author find her voice and turn her story into a narrative – I was immediately taken with the power of Yeon-mi’s testimony, as well as the warmth of her personality and her playful sense of humor. It was hard to fathom how this vibrant young woman could have suffered such an ordeal.
As soon as we began working together, I noticed there were some minor discrepancies in the articles written about Yeon-mi, a jumbling of dates and places and some inconsistent details about her family’s escape. Most of these issues could be explained by a language barrier – Yeon-mi was giving interviews in English before she was fully fluent. But Yeon-mi was also protecting a secret, something she had tried to bury and forget from the moment she arrived in South Korea at age 15: like tens of thousands of other refugees, Yeon-mi had been trafficked in China. In South Korea – and many other societies – admitting to such a “shameful” past would destroy her prospects for marriage and any sort of normal life.
She had hoped that by changing a few details about her escape she could avoid revealing the full story. But after she decided to plunge into human rights activism, she realized that without the whole truth, the story of her life would have no real power or meaning. She has apologized for any discrepancies in her public record, and is determined that her book be scrupulously accurate.
With Yeon-mi’s cooperation, I have been able to verify her story through family members and fellow defectors who knew her in North Korea and China. Sometimes Yeon-mi had forgotten or blocked out graphic details from her childhood, only to have the memories return in all their horror as we reviewed her recollections with other witnesses. It seemed that she wasn’t just remembering these things, but actually reliving them.
Dr Judith Herman, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard tells me: “Traumatized people don’t give you a perfect, complete narrative on the first go-round. You see this all the time with refugees seeking asylum. That doesn’t mean their story isn’t credible, because the gist of their story is consistent.”
[Journalist Maryanne Vollers, writing in The Guardian]