Magazine | November 17, 2014, Issue

Witness from Hell

The bravery of a North Korean escapee

Oslo — It was not until 2010 that I met a North Korean. I met Kang Chol-hwan at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Kang is the famed defector who wrote a memoir called “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.” Shaking his hand, I had a strange feeling: I felt I was meeting someone from outer space. I had the feeling of meeting an emissary, an escapee, from the largest, most terrible prison imaginable.

North Korea is called “the Hermit Kingdom,” because it is uniquely isolated. No one comes in and no one goes out (as a rule). This is too cute a name, however. North Korea is a “psychotic state,” as Jeane Kirkpatrick said. It is a cruel Communist experiment, run by a dynasty of dictators named Kim. It is a place of mass mesmerism, mass murder, and mass misery. With apologies to Syria, Somalia, and a few other countries, it is the worst place on earth.

Since 2010, I have met some more North Koreans, mainly through this same Oslo Freedom Forum (the annual human-rights conference in the Norwegian capital). There are two defectors or escapees at the forum this year: Yeonmi Park and Hyeonseo Lee. They are both young women, and they are stars of the North Korean defector circuit, so to speak. They are pretty and personable, which no doubt contributes to their “stardom.” They are also incredibly brave and steely.

I will write about just one of them — Yeonmi — though their stories and views and abilities are equally compelling and impressive.

My first question is, “When did you first realize that your country was unlike other countries? That it was highly abnormal?” Yeonmi says it was when she was in her early teens: She saw the movie Titanic, in a bootleg copy. This movie not only tells the story of the famous tragedy at sea. It invents a love story between a young man named Jack and a young woman named Rose. In the end, Jack sacrifices his life for Rose.

Yeonmi was stunned. In North Korea, there were no love stories. “There is no Romeo and Juliet,” as she says. The only “love” is for the Communist party and the Kims. There is nothing more honorable than to die for the Kims. Dying for another person — someone you genuinely love — is unthinkable. As she watched the movie, Yeonmi wondered whether the director and actors would be killed. The movie was a criminal act, in North Korean terms.

The act of watching the movie “transformed my thinking,” says Yeonmi. “It was mind-blowing. It gave me my first taste of freedom. I realized that there was something else out there, that not all the people in this world were living like us. It was a really important turning-point in how I saw the Kim regime.”

There was an event earlier in Yeonmi’s life that left a mark on her: an experience of terror. When she was nine, she and her classmates were made to witness public executions. One of the victims was her best friend’s mother. She was shot, with the others. Her offense was to have lent a James Bond video to someone else. The regime could not let alien ideas take root and grow. Yeonmi stood next to her friend — the victim’s daughter — as the woman was killed.

Death was a constant in Yeonmi’s life, as in the lives of North Koreans in general. Kids died on the street all the time, of hunger. Yeonmi did not quite know to be sad or horrified. It was simply normal. So were the corpses that she saw floating in the river. Probably, these were North Koreans who had failed in their attempts to cross over to China.

Yeonmi Park is an articulate young woman, even in imperfect English. And she is obviously smart as a whip. But I ask her this question, because I suspect the answer is yes: “Do you find it hard to describe North Korea to outsiders?” It is impossible, she says. “I cannot find any words to describe my country, or the feelings I had while I was in North Korea.” She does her best, however.

I will relate some fragments — further fragments — from her life. She was born in 1993 in Hyesan, on the border with China. The Yalu River separates the two countries. Sometimes, Yeonmi could smell food cooking on the other side. It was fatty, oily food, and absolutely mouth-watering. The Chinese would call over the river, taunting the North Koreans: “Are you hungry over there?” The North Koreans would yell back, “You bad Chinese!”

Like other North Koreans, Yeonmi was convinced that the Kims could even read her thoughts. They were all-pervasive. When Yeonmi was four, her mother told her, “Don’t even whisper. The birds and the mice will hear you. The birds will hear you during the day, and the mice will hear you at night.” The mother was trying to protect her daughter “from the terror,” as Yeonmi says — from terrible consequences. A wrong word could get you and your family into fatal trouble.

#page#The family was one of privilege. Yeonmi’s father was a party member. But “my world came crashing down when I was nine,” says Yeonmi: Her father was arrested and imprisoned (and of course tortured and broken). Her mother went to prison too for a time. Yeonmi and her sister had to fend for themselves, more or less. They were unable to attend school.

“Were you hungry?” I ask. “Oh, my gosh, of course,” Yeonmi answers. The girls ate dragonflies, frogs, tree bark, and grass. You could eat grass only before June, because, afterward, it was poisonous. “We had to survive,” says Yeonmi. “We had to feed ourselves. It was our work.” Sometimes, people ask her, “What did you do in North Korea, without the Internet or anything? Were you bored?” Yeonmi tells them no: When you’re thinking about how to get the next morsel into your mouth — no matter how unfit for consumption it is — you’re not bored.

In March 2007, Yeonmi and her mother fled to China. Their flight was harrowing, but they made it. A Chinese “broker” — a smuggler or trafficker — decided that he would rape Yeonmi. Her mother said, “No, she’s only 13.” The broker said he didn’t care. Girls younger than 13 were being raped, routinely. Yeonmi’s mother said, “You will have to kill me. You’re not going to have my daughter.” The man threatened to call the police. Yeonmi and her mother were extremely vulnerable: If they were sent back to North Korea, they would be killed. Yeonmi’s mother said, “Take me instead.” The man did. He raped her, right in front of Yeonmi, 13 years old.

Yeonmi’s father soon joined the family. (Yeonmi’s sister was elsewhere — that is a separate drama.) They hid out in China, terrified of being discovered and sent back. Yeonmi’s father died a terrible death in January 2008. Yeonmi helped bury him out in the mountains, at three in the morning. It was extremely cold. Yeonmi was afraid to cry and be discovered.

A year later, she and her mother made a run for Mongolia. In a group of five, they crossed the Gobi Desert. They walked for 24 hours. It was, again, extremely cold. The group had a compass, which broke. They followed the stars. They also had knives — with which to kill themselves, if they were caught. Among the dangers were wild animals, which they could hear, howling. Those animals were hungry, as the fugitives themselves were.

Yeonmi’s main thought was to live. She had seen her father die “like an animal,” she says: “It was not a human way to die. And I didn’t want to die the same way.” She had attempted suicide. But now she wanted to live. “I wanted to live for my mother, and she wanted to live for me.” In the desert, Yeonmi developed a great respect for life, she says.

At the border with Mongolia, the guards said they could not pass. They would have to go back. Desperate, feeling they had no other choice, Yeonmi and her mother put their knives to their throats, threatening to kill themselves. The guards relented. The South Korean embassy offered asylum. By April 2009, Yeonmi was in Seoul, beginning a new life.

You would think that Yeonmi could face no more hardships, and, in a sense, she has not. Yet it was difficult to adjust to life in South Korea. For one thing, she wasn’t sure of her identity: What country am I from? Am I North Korean, South Korean, or just Korean? The acceptance or non-acceptance of North Koreans by South Koreans is a story unto itself (and one frequently told, true). I ask Yeonmi whether South Koreans desire reunification. Her answer, in short, is, Absolutely not.

Rather than embrace North Koreans as persecuted brothers and sisters, many South Koreans shun them or shudder at them. These Koreans, says Yeonmi, consider North Koreans barbarians or subhuman. One of the most common questions she gets is, “Have you ever eaten human flesh?” The question is not asked sympathetically. I ask Yeonmi whether North Koreans do, in fact, eat human flesh. “Yeah,” she says, quietly. I do not ask her — I can’t bring myself to — whether she ever did.

Even while a free woman in South Korea, she did not feel completely free in her mind: To a degree, she still felt under the spell of the dictatorship under which she was raised. But in 2011, she read an extraordinary book: Animal Farm, by George Orwell. The book seemed to be about North Korea, she says. She cried all night as she read it. “Animal Farm set me free from brainwashing,” she says.

Later, she read Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell’s magnum opus. This book too, she felt, was about North Korea. “A lot of people think it’s just a novel, just fiction, but it tells the truth. It is the real story.” Yeonmi is amazed at Orwell’s capacity to understand. “He’s a genius.”

In Seoul, Yeonmi began to appear on a television show, a kind of variety show. Other North Korean girls are on it as well. I ask Yeonmi, “Are you famous? Are you recognized on the street?” Yes, she says. “Is it nice? Do you enjoy it?” Yeonmi doesn’t answer for a long time. She gathers her thoughts, then she says, “I started to get attention in South Korea because I was young and pretty. Our show is a beauty show, so we wear lots of makeup and short shorts. We act cute and sexy.” She figures it is worth it if they can get their message out: Their message about the reality of North Korea. And they do get the message out, through the froth and glitz.

#page#Also, says Yeonmi, this show proves to South Koreans that North Koreans are normal people, not merely beasts that scrounge for food, although they are forced to do that, as South Koreans and anybody else would in the same circumstances.

Her television fame provides her main platform, but she has also worked for a refugee newspaper. She uses every outlet she can find. She campaigns continually against the Kim dictatorship. For her troubles, she has received death threats from the regime. A South Korean official urged her to lie low and change her name. Yeonmi would not hear of either. “I have already experienced freedom,” she tells me, “and I am satisfied.” I take this to mean that she does not fear death. She also says she wants to use her time — however much time it is — to help her fellow North Koreans. As for her name, she says, “It is my legacy from my father, the only one he left me, and I am very proud of it.” She will not give it up.

Yeonmi is now a student at Dongguk University in Seoul, studying criminal justice. She would like to study international relations in the United States. She reads widely, soaking everything up. In a sense, she is making up for lost time. She is interested in Bastiat, the classical-liberal economist. At the other end of the spectrum, she is interested in The Communist Manifesto. She is mainly interested in the freedom to read and think whatever she pleases. Among the “classics” she has enjoyed, she says, is Wuthering Heights.

I ask her whether she expects the North Korean dictatorship to fall. Yes, she says. “Nothing can last forever. That’s one thing I have learned from history: Nothing is forever.” After 70 years, for example, the Soviet Union fell. Also, “a lie does not have power. They lied to me for more than a decade, and they lied to my mother for four decades. And when you see the truth, the lie’s all gone. The brainwashing stops. No more lie.”

Yeonmi sees two possibilities for North Korea. In the first scenario, the regime falls, just as the Soviet Union did. Presumably, reunification would follow, with all of its challenges (to put it mildly). In the second scenario, the regime adjusts, as the Chinese Communists and the Vietnamese Communists have done. That would allow the North Korean Communists to hang on for untold years longer. “My dream is reunification,” says Yeonmi.

Toward the end of our conversation, I ask a standard question: “Is there anything in particular you would like people to know?” She thinks for a while. Then she says, with an air of apology, “I know there are lots of problems in this world.” She mentions the Dalits, the untouchables, in India, specifically. So, why should people care about North Korea? It’s just one country. But “this is so urgent,” she says. I tell her she should not feel apologetic. She is not being selfish. North Koreans have the unwanted distinction of suffering under the worst dictatorship there is.

It occurs to me that Yeonmi must be a hard person to complain to. I say to her, “How can anyone complain to you, or other North Koreans? You must be amazed when people say to you, ‘Oh, my feet hurt,’ or, ‘Oh, I ate too much.’ Your problem was never eating too much, was it?” She smiles. And she relates a conversation she had with an Egyptian, about the severe problems in that country. For one thing, said the Egyptian, people cannot get meat regularly. They have to make do with fruit, vegetables, bread, and so on. To Yeonmi, when she was hunting for dragonflies, such meals would have been unthinkably great.

She tells me about the time she and her father ate frozen potatoes, “black in color.” They could not find any wood for fire. There was nothing to burn (and there was of course no electricity). So, they ate the black potatoes with snow. “That’s how I lived,” says Yeonmi. And she and her father felt lucky to have those potatoes. Lots of people were starving to death at the time. “If I could have eaten those black potatoes forever,” she says, “I would never have made that journey to China. I would have stayed in North Korea.” But she could not count on the luck of black potatoes, which could not be cooked.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that, when I met Kang Chol-hwan, I felt I was meeting someone from a different planet. I could not believe I was shaking hands with a North Korean (an escapee from the gulag — a concentration camp). I am now faintly surprised to be seeing Yeonmi, and she is faintly surprised to be seeing me. “When I was crossing the Gobi Desert, trying to stay alive,” she says, “I never expected to be having this conversation, in English, in Norway.”

Yeonmi Park is cute and bright and personable and adorable. Naturally, she is a hit on television, and on the human-rights circuit. What she mainly is, though, is brave. Unbelievably, unfathomably brave.

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