Yeonmi Park, although just 13 years old when she fled North Korea and a mere 22 years old now, is a testament to an archetypal–if rare–act: it is sometimes better to spit in the face of death than suffer at the hands of crippling oppression.
The oppression she faced growing up in North Korea was absolute. Park describes a fear that plagued and formed her childhood. Born in the wake of the Soviet Union collapse and consequent famine in North Korea, Yeonmi faced hardships beyond this brutal mind control. The daughter of a once-successful civil servant for the ruling Working Party, Yeonmi adored her father, who was sentenced to 17 years in a labor camp for smuggling metal to feed his starving family. There he was tortured and fell ill under the harsh conditions; meanwhile Yeonmi, her mother, and her sister were relegated to the margins of society as a part of her father’s punishment.
At times subsisting on insects and grass, the family decided they had to leave–or perish. Her mother and Yeonmi fled when Yeonmi was 13. What they hoped would be their path to freedom, quickly proved to be another two-year chapter of degradation and suffering. Trafficked upon entering China, Yeonmi’s mother sacrificed herself to prevent her daughter from being raped, and was in turn violated in front of her child. Both members of the family were sold.
Yeonmi was purchased for $260. Essentially functioning as a sex slave, Yeonmi said she cried every day. Her captor, however, ultimately released them, but only after her father rejoined she and her mother in China; he died soon after from untreated colon cancer.
In the wake of this tragedy, Yeonmi and her mother set out again for freedom–this time traversing the Gobi Desert on foot in frigid temperatures, with only the stars to guide them. Both carried knives to use on themselves if they were captured, resigned to suicide rather than facing repatriation.
[The Establishment, republished in Huffington Post]