At the age of just 21, Yeonmi, this sweetly-confident, intelligent and tiny-framed young North Korean woman, who managed to flee the famine-torn country at the age of 13, is already a global spokesperson for her own people – a people terrorized into submission and silence while the wider world ignores what she describes as a “holocaust”.
In an interview, Yeonmi told how her first memory is of being told by her mother at the age of four “not to even whisper because the birds and mice could hear you”.
When she was nine, she was forced to watch her best friend’s mother being executed on the street before her eyes. Her only crime had been she had watched a James Bond movie and shared the DVDs with neighbors.
“Always I knew that in North Korea when they kill the people, they justify themselves by saying these are criminals trying to destroy our socialist paradise. But I knew that lady. She was not that bad. She was not going to destroy our country,” she said.
That same year, Yeonmi’s life changed catastrophically when her father, a mid-ranking civil servant, was arrested and imprisoned for selling precious metals to China on the black market. Her mother, too, was interrogated and thrown into jail. Yeonmi and her sister, Eunmi were left to fend for themselves, at the age of nine and 11, foraging on the mountainsides for grasses, plants, frogs and even dragonflies to avoid starving to death. “Everything I used to see, I ate them,” she said.
Asked if any adults around knew the children were surviving alone, Yeonmi tries to explain. “People were dying there. They don’t care… most people are just hungry and that’s why they don’t have the spirit or time to take care of other people.”
Her bravery and willingness to speak out about conditions in her native land comes at a price. Police in Seoul – the South Korean capital where she now lives – have warned her she is on North Korea’s official list of public enemies. If she ever returns to her native country, she will instantly be executed.
Yeonmi is more than familiar with the method – she has witnessed it many times as a child, when her mother used to give her a piggyback ride to the big stadium to watch the public executions, considered a ‘celebration’ which everybody is under orders to attend. Along the route, victims are beaten with sticks and a rock placed in their mouths so that all their teeth are broken. Once they get there, they are shot three times – in the knee, the chest and the head. Nobody, not even the closest of family members, is permitted to show any sign of grief.
At the age of 13, Yeonmi’s sister fled across the border without telling the family and after four days, Yeonmi’s mother, terrified for Eunmi’s safety, decided they would follow her. Released just the previous day from hospital after an appendix operation and wearing shoes that were too large for her, Yeonmi could barely walk and her clothes were too flimsy for the freezing conditions in which they crossed three mountains and a frozen river.
When they finally reached the alleged ‘safety’ of China, they encountered a man who demanded to have sex with the 13-year-old girl who had “never even heard the word sex before”. Terrified, her mother offered herself in return and ordered her daughter to turn her back while she was raped.
Life in China was worse, if possible, even than it had been in North Korea. With no money and unable to speak the language, the family was on the brink of starvation. And though Yeonmi’s father managed to join them across the border, his health had been destroyed by prison life and torture. When he died shortly afterwards, the family were forced to bury him secretly for fear of being caught.
His death sparked the family’s second flight – this time across the Gobi desert to South Korea, where Yeonmi went to school and learned for the first time that everybody is born equal.
She explained the situation in North Korea as a “holocaust” the world is again choosing to ignore.