Brandeis Young Americans for Liberty and the Brandeis Korean Students Association hosted 26-year-old North Korean defector and human rights advocate Yeonmi Park for a talk on Wednesday about her escape from North Korea and the difficulties of fighting for freedom under the country’s dictatorship. 

Park was born in 1993 in North Korea and grew up with one older sister and “loving parents,” she said. She said that for many years, she did not know that she was oppressed. There has not been a revolution in North Korea because “if you do not know you are oppressed, how do you fight to be free?” she said. She added that many North Koreans do not know of the existence of a world where people are free. 

When Park was growing up, food was scarce, so her diet consisted of grasshoppers and dragonflies, and she weighed between 50 and 60 pounds, Park recalled. She said that the only way for her to survive was to escape. Much of North Korea was without electricity, and for Park, the only hope of finding food came from “seeing the electricity at night coming from China.” Park said that she thought that “maybe if [she went] where the lights [were, she] might find something to eat.”

Park’s sister escaped before her at the age of 16 with her friend, and Park said that she was supposed to escape that day as well. Instead, Park had a stomach ache one day that led to her being in the hospital. The hospital lacked proper equipment to diagnose her, and the doctors assumed that she had appendicitis. After doing the operation, they found out that what Park had was a complication from malnutrition. Park described the hospital as unsanitary, with nurses using the same needle on multiple patients and bodies piling up in the hallways with no way to remove them. She had her appendix removed without painkillers and did not contract an infection following surgery. As a result of her procedure, Park couldn’t escape with her sister, but her sister left Park a note telling her of a woman who could help her and their mother eventually escape. 

Park said that as she, her mother and her father attempted to escape, they encountered brokers who claimed they could help them. The Parks were so desperate to leave North Korea that they did not question the brokers, who ended up raping Park’s mother. Park was sold into sex slavery for less than $300 and separated from her mother at age 13. The broker who bought Park told her that if she became his mistress, he would buy her mother. Park said that she “stopped being a child, and stopped feeling things” and that it was a “different kind of trickery, [that makes] you believe that's not you, you kind of see yourself in third person perspective.”

Park was a sex slave for two years before she was rescued by South Korean missionaries whose goal was to get the Bible into North Korea. The missionaries told her that if she “believed in God, they would help [her].” Park said that she wondered why she had to believe in something just so that she could survive. She said that “when you’re so desperate, you don’t care, you believe anything they ask you to believe.”

In North Korea, “thinking is an act of rebellion,” Park said. One of the first lessons she said she learned from her mother was that she should not whisper because “the birds and the mice could hear [her].”

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A CHANGE OF PACE: Even after Park was out of North Korea, she still struggled with stigma and had to learn new ideas about the concept of freedom. Today, Park lives in New York City and will soon graduate from Columbia University.

When Park was 15, South Korean missionaries in China let her free and allowed her to go to South Korea on her own. The missionaries gave her only a compass, and she had to walk across a desert in negative 40-degree temperatures to get to South Korea. 

Once Park made it to South Korea, she said that her troubles were not over, despite South Korea being a free country. She faced stigma against rape survivors, and all of the blame for her rape was placed on her. 

Park then discussed how she felt when she learned that people explored the Moon before they had explored North Korea, and said she hoped that people would discover North Korea before anyone explored Mars. Park also stressed that it is “our duty as free people to speak for [the] people who [do not] have [a] voice” because “when nobody is free, who will speak for us?”

During the Q&A after Park’s talk, one student asked Park, at what point was it that she learned what freedom was. Park said that this moment came when she was in South Korea and was asked to introduce herself. She said that in North Korea, no one used the pronoun “I” to describe themselves, but instead used “we.” In South Korea, Park said that everyone wanted to know about her as an individual. 

Another realization of the concept of freedom came when she read the book “1984” by George Orwell. Park said that she realized the importance of language as she read about the concept of doublespeak, where one word means something completely different than its definition. In North Korea, the word “gay” does not exist, and if the word for something doesn’t exist, there is no way to understand that concept, Park said.

Another student asked Park if she missed anything about North Korea and her childhood. Park answered that the only thing she did not like about North Korea was the dictatorship, but that she missed her friends. In North Korea, Park explained, her connection with friends was very different from in the United States. She said that every morning, she would knock on her friends’ doors to see who was available to play, a custom that does not exist in the United States because of the availability of technology to plan in advance.

Park was also asked about how she found the strength to function after what happened to her. Park explained that she didn’t feel anger towards her past, but that she gained perspective. Park said that “after you go through all of that insane amount of suffering, and you survive, but now you’re going to be resentful of why you survived. So then [what] would [be] the point of me surviving that?”

One of the last questions Park was asked was if she had any regrets about her past. Park said that she was glad that she didn’t follow through on any of her attempts to take her own life and that if she could tell her younger self something, it would be that “life is a gift that you [have]” and to “keep that faith, and that everything is [going to] be alright.”

Park lives in New York City and is married, with one child. She will be graduating from Columbia University this winter.