North Korean Defector: ‘We Were Prepared to Kill Ourselves’

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As a child growing up in North Korea, Yeonmi Park thought her country was “the best on the planet.”

All of that changed after her mother shared a letter from a co-worker’s sister. She talked about the letter during a TED talk in 2013. 

“It read, ‘When you read this, our five family members will not exist in this world because we haven’t eaten for the past three weeks. We are lying on the floor together and our bodies are so weak, we are waiting to die,” she said.

“I was so shocked,” said Park.

“This was the first time I heard that people in my country were suffering.”

In 2007, at the age of 14, Park and her family fled North Korea for a better life in China. She said that she and her mother actually walked across a frozen river to get there.

But it wasn’t until recently that Park’s story went viral after someone posted video of a speech she gave at The Young World Summit in 2014.

During the speech Park highlights abuses and atrocities carried out by the North Korean government.

“North Korea is the only country in the world that executes people for making unauthorized international phone calls,” Park says in the video. 

She said that her views of the Kim Dynasty changed further when she watched an illegally imported DVD of the 1997 movie “Titanic,” which caused her to realize the oppressive nature of the North Korean government. She said the movie gave her a “taste of freedom.”

“North Koreans are desperately seeking and dying for freedom at this moment,” said Park.

“When I was nine years old I saw my friend’s mother publicly executed. Her crime? Watching a Hollywood movie,” explained an emotional Park.

“Expressing doubt about the greatness of the regime can get three generations of a family imprisoned or executed.” 

Park said that her father died after they arrived in China.

“I had to bury him, at 3:00 a.m. in secret. I was 14 years old. I couldn’t even cry. I was afraid to be sent back to North Korea” she sobs in the video.

She also said that life in China was also tragic and painful. She and her mother were both sold into slavery to human traffickers.

“The day I escaped North Korea, I saw my mother raped. The rapist was a Chinese broker. He targeted me. I was 13 years old. There is a saying in North Korea: ‘Women are weak, but mothers are strong.’ My mother allowed herself to be raped in order to protect me.”

Park described the most harrowing part of her escape.

“Mongolia was our freedom moment. Death or dignity. Armed with knives, we were prepared to kill ourselves if we were going to be sent back to North Korea. We wanted to live as humans.

“No humans deserve to be oppressed just because of their birthplace.”

By the end of Park’s moving speech, the majority of the audience was in tears. 

She now works to raise awareness about the human rights violations in North Korea.

“That’s why I’m here and why I tell my story, because people don’t realize what’s happening to people there,” she said.

In 2015, Park published her autobiography In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Jouney to Freedom.

She is currently studying economics at Columbia University. 

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