Yeonmi Park, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom (Part I)



From her appearance on the scene in late 2014—with an emotional speech at the One Young World Summit in Dublin that went viral on You Tube—Yeonmi Park has managed to stir a surprising amount of controversy. Early coverage in The Diplomat by Mary Ann Joley (here) and John Power (here) —the latter citing critics such as Michael Bassett and Felix Abt—focused on the consistency of the narrative. These details even included basics such as who in the family escaped when and what she actually witnessed in North Korea (dead bodies in streets, rivers and the courtyards of hospitals; public executions).

However, the controversy also centers on Park’s political ideas, which are best characterized as an instinctive libertarianism: a focus on how simple freedoms—including openly consumerist ones—were squelched during her childhood. The controversy plays out against a fraught political backdrop. Not only is the regime quite naturally intent on discrediting the defectors, including Park. But those seeking more engagement also fear that defector narratives will be used for the political purpose of ratcheting up sanctions, a patronizing view of opinions Park has every right to hold (and to profit from if she chooses; her speaking fees have aroused niggling comment as did an effort to crowdsource her Columbia tuition, which she ultimately withdrew on her Facebook page in favor of contributions to Justice for North Korea). In fact the book says surprisingly little about policy issues and could well be used to argue for more rather than less engagement.

In Order to Live addresses the thorny issue of method in her prologue. Not all that Park recounts was witnessed first hand; at times, she of necessity draws on family history, the experiences of her sister and mother—from whom she was sometimes separated—as well, and background on the country which she had little way of knowing at the time. But she openly admits that her effort is not simply to recount her experience, but to understand it. “Sometimes the only way we can survive our own memories,” she writes, “is to shape them into a story that makes sense of out events that seem inexplicable.” Journalists are within their rights to call out inconsistencies, although there is more than a little naïveté in the exercise. Who—except a lawyer—would treat a memoir as a perfectly remembered recitation of fact? For our purposes as social scientists, the questions do not hinge on the veracity of any given event. Rather we read this and other memoirs for an understanding of the North Korean system, which can only be gleaned from triangulating incomplete and imperfect sources including moving memoirs such as Park’s (our other posts on sources of refugee testimony are linked below).

Virtually all of the memoirs we have read, as well as accounts such as Sandra Fahy’s Marching Through Suffering follow a narrative arc: life in North Korea; the escape process; life in China; getting out of China; and adjusting to life in the South or elsewhere. Here we highlight a few things that struck us in Park’s account. Today we begin with the interesting accounts of her life in North Korea, and pick up our long-standing complaints about Chinese complicity in North Korea’s record of gross human rights abuses tomorrow.

Life in North Korea

By Park’s own account, her family was relatively privileged, but primarily through its involvement in the market; indeed, her life was shaped precisely by her experience of sharp downward mobility. Park was born in Hyesan in 1993, the administrative center of Ryanggang province on the Chinese border; Park recounts briefly how Hyesan—distant from the capital in a poor province—had been ahead of the rest of the country in allowing market activity in the 1980s.

Her grandfather had gotten caught up in collective family punishment for a crime of one his sons, throwing the political status (songbun) of the entire lineage off track. Her mother’s family had similar problems as a result of property ownership. An interesting analytic question: why shouldn’t we be thinking of North Korea as essentially a caste society?

After being discharged for health reasons from the army, her father pursued a dual-track career strategy: working in a foundry to stay plugged into the party and simultaneously opening a side business trading in smuggled cigarettes. The description of her father’s trading activities are fascinating (27-28). He initially relied on bribery and medical excuses from work to travel to smaller towns with his clothes packed with contraband and ultimately quit his foundry position to work with Park’s mother in trading full time, expanding their activities all the way to the coast and lucrative trade in fish. (A remarkable picture of the two of them on their wedding day in 1991 in Pyongyang conveys a subtle outlaw feel).

A particularly high-return, but ultimately dangerous business was working with a contact in Pyongyang to divert specialty metals to China, an example of the recurring problem of theft of state property. By 2000 the family was relatively affluent. Park had played Nintendo and even visited Pyongyang, which she describes perfectly as a combination of Red Square, Jerusalem and Disneyland.

The family’s downward slide comes with the arrest of her father in 2002, isolating the whole family and sending them into internal exile. In a fascinating detail, Park’s mother actually sells their home in Hyesan—suggesting the scope of market activity by this point—retreating first to a small village and then to a smaller city (Kowon).  She recounts a story about night soil that encapsulates the perversities of the system. In an effort to solve shortfalls in fertilizer, the government mobilized households to contribute quotas of human and animal waste. But because of the unpleasantness of collecting the quotas, families had to protect themselves from “poop thieves.” Could you make this up?

It is in this phase of her life—periodically orphaned by her mother’s need to move to trade; facing hunger and the limits of a failing healthcare system—that Park experiences the worst hardship of her life. By the time she returns to Hyesan in 2005, she portrays a city in which the youth her age were already well into what she calls the jangmadang generation, but where she faced effective discrimination because of her father’s arrest and diminished class position.

My selective account raises one last issue for consideration. In our surveys of refugees in Witness to Transformation, Marc Noland and I found extraordinary market involvement on the part of the refugees who were still in the country around this time. Although we also asked about the activities of others and found indirect evidence that market activity was very widespread, Park’s account raises an important question of social psychology: whether the experiences of participation in the market don’t generate a particularly clear-eyed vision of the regime, an instinctive understanding of the values of freedom and also a related desire to escape.

Some of the most explosive things in Park’s account center on the trafficking machine; we pick up those themes tomorrow.

Witness to Transformation Reviews of Defector Memoirs, Testimony and Interviews

Jang Jin-Sung: Dear Leader Eunsun Kim: A Thousand Miles to Freedom On Shin Don-hyuk: Escape from Camp 14; The Case Against--and For--Shin Dong-hyuk; The DPRK on Shin Dong-hyuk Lucia Jang: Stars Between the Sun and Moon (afterward by Stephan Haggard) Sandra Fahy: Marching Through Suffering Yeonmi Park Talk "I Am a North Korean Millenial" Hyeonseo Lee TED Talk: My Escape from North Korea Joseph Kim TED Talk: Hunger is Humiliation Green and Epstein on On My Way to Meet You Committee on Human Rights in North Korea Intern Memoirs

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