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

January 14, 2016 7:00 AM

Yesterday, I discussed some of the interesting evidence on market activity, upward and downward mobility in North Korea that emerge from Yeonmi Park’s memoir. In this post, I turn to the searing issues of trafficking that the memoir exposes; if anything, Park’s boldness on these issues has not received the attention it deserves.

Escape and Life in China

For those seeking to understand the refugee problem, some of the most searing aspects of Park’s book center on her portrayal of the complex networks associated with refugee exit and trafficking: the “supply” end of the chain in North Korea itself; the initial contact with brokers in the Chinese border areas; and the subsequent movement of people from the border to the interior where final demand is located, primarily in the rural areas of the three border provinces but to a lesser extent in sex work in the cities. Park and her mother were both sold by the North Koreans for about $260 and $65 respectively and then resold for markups that were negotiated in their presence. At one point, Park was kidnapped by a North Korean couple who wanted to sell her by themselves. “Trafficking” is too antiseptic for this process; it should be known for what it is, namely slavery.

Sexual violence is not only the end state of these markets, which supply “brides” mainly to rural farmers, but also to urban men seeking mistresses. The violence is at all stages along the chain as well. At the very first stage of their journey, Park recounts how her mother was raped effectively in front of her. Park’s fate was tied to a fairly high-level trafficker named Hongwei who operated in a territory between Chaoyang and the port Jinzhou. After several rape attempts, Park recounts her thinking about her captivity: “for a long time, I thought of it as a business negotiation” before recognizing that her acquiescence to Hongwei’s approaches was in fact rape. Stockholm syndrome sets in to some extent, as Park ends up working for Hongwei in the trafficking business, doing the little she can to blunt the trauma of the process for other victims, and ultimately spending some time working in a sex chat room alongside her mother.

At the risk of restating the obvious, the reasons for these depredations lie not only in North Korea but in China, and in two distinct ways. First, the Chinese government has generally done very little to clean up this sort of trafficking, either in the Northeast or elsewhere. An intriguing aspect of Park’s account is her portrayal of Shenyang as “overrun with violent gangs and controlled by corrupt public officials who were regularly purged by the government in Beijing, only to be replaced by new ones.” She notes that Hongwei and other gangsters faced difficulties when the Chinese government cracked down on the border in 2008; but this was opportunistic, related to the Beijing Olympics rather than any reversal of policy.

But the second problem is the failure of Beijing to abide by its obligations under the refugee convention, which would require shifting these trafficking networks in the direction of a formal refugee determination process. The second-order effects of China’s failure to do so—and its collaboration with North Korean security forces in throwing refugees back into the country—is to strengthen the impunity with which a variety of Chinese actors can exploit the North Korean refugees with impunity: traffickers, gangs, husbands, employers. These themes are not distinctive to Park’s account but are recurrent features of refugee testimony.

Exit from China, Adjustment in South Korea and the US

 Park and her mother ultimately got out of China through Mongolia with the help of Christian missionaries. Park portrays the South Korean pastor in charge as moralizing and judgmental and talks about how the religious themes in North Korean political culture may have made it easier for refugees to convert to Christianity. The remainder of the book travels a path that is more standard and I pass over it more lightly here: the NIS and Hanawon screening processes (with some particularly unkind treatment on the part of NIS interrogators); the adjustment to South Korean life; the discrimination (at one point, she is identified as a “foreigner” by her accent at a PC Internet room). But one passage captures the underlying difficulty of the adjustment process:

“In North Korea, we were usually taught to memorize everything, and most of the time there is only one correct answer to each question. So when the teacher asked for my favorite color, I thought hard to come up with the “right” answer. I had never been taught to use the “critical thinking” part of my brain, the part that makes reasoned judgments about why one things seems better than the other.”

Multiply this problem across a population with many less curious than Yeonmi Park, and you have a sense of the vast social challenges unification would bring.

The end of the book takes us through Yeonmi Park’s self-education and astute exploitation of opportunities that opened up to her: admission to Dongguk University; participation in the South Korean TV show on North Korean refugees called On My Way to Meet You; an invitation from a Christian group to visit the United States; and ultimately her viral YouTube video. There are many ways to read this book from a personal story of struggle and triumph to an ideological statement on the virtues of living in a free society. But our purpose here is more narrow: to see what the refugees can tell us about the North Korean system. Nothing in this books strikes me as implausible, and much that is recounted—sometimes without full awareness—fundamentally violates what we know. Ms. Park calls North Korea an unimaginable country, but her account—and those of other refugees—make it at least somewhat more imaginable.

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


Michael Bassett

I agree that the most interesting part of her book involves get escape, but for different reasons. The book highlights the Christian indoctrination network and process missionaries use in attempt to reverse brainwash, or double brainwash, defectors when they cross. For example, Park wasn't even allowed access to the Underground Railroad until she learned the bible, "confessed her sins," and accepted Jesus as the Lord and Savior in replacement of the Kim's. Every defector book has elements of this phenomenon embedded in it. Funny it's not mentioned here, but probably for the same reason I haven't written about it: because making North Korea paranoid about missionaries doesn't help anyone. It even hurts engagement projects.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

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