“We were bought and sold like cattle”: Yeonmi Park tells of her harrowing escape from North Korea

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Following North Korea’s economic collapse in the 1990s, Yeomni Park’s family turned to black market trading in order to survive. After her father was sent to a prison camp, the rest of the family faced starvation. By 2007, Yeonmi and her mother decided their only way to survive was to flee to China. But the pair were captured by human traffickers and suffered unimaginably inhumane treatment before finally escaping to South Korea in 2009. Park is now an author and human rights activist, studying for a degree in America. Here, the 22-year-old tells of her arduous escape from North Korea. 

On the cold, black night of March 31, 2007, my mother and I scrambled down the steep, rocky bank of the frozen Yalu River that divides North Korea and China. There were patrols above us and below, and guard posts one hundred yards on either side of us manned by soldiers ready to shoot anyone attempting to cross the border. This was just the start of my arduous escape from North Korea a journey that would contain much horror and heartbreak. I was just 13 years old.

My journey to South Korea took me across the the Gobi Desert. I wasn’t really afraid of dying as much as I was afraid of being forgotten. I was scared that I would die in the desert and nobody would know, nobody would know my name or would care if I had lived or died.

That is why I feel I must tell my story. I want to share with the world how terrible the situation in North Korea really is. Many people fail to take the situation in North Korea seriously, as the leader (Kim Jong-un) is such an object of ridicule in the western world, in reality it is a humanitarian crisis that needs to be solved as soon as possible. I am grateful that I was born in North Korea as it means I am able to do something about the situation. I am able to tell the world my story.

North and South Koreans have the same ethnic backgrounds, and we speak the same language—except in the North there are no words for things like “shopping malls,” “liberty,” or even “love,” at least as the rest of the world knows it. The only true “love” we can express is worship for the Kims, a dynasty of dictators who have ruled North Korea for three generations.

My mother had no exposure to the outside world or foreign ideas. She knew only what the regime taught her. She sincerely believed that North Korea was the centre of the universe and that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (the current leader, Kim Jong-un's relatives and political predecessors) had supernatural powers. She believed that Kim Il Sung caused the sun to rise. She was so brainwashed that when Kim Il Sung died she started to panic. It was like God himself had died. “How can the Earth still spin on its axis?” she wondered.

When me and my sister were really desperately hungry we would go to the countryside and catch insects to eat.

During the worst period of my childhood in North Korea my parents, my sister and I lived in a three room apartment which we shared with two other families. There was no electricity and no elevator, this meant the stair wells were almost pitch black and we had to walk up the flights of stairs running our fingers against the walls to find our way. My father was also very sick and we were starving.

Most young girls in the outside world dream about what they want be when they grow up. My only dream for when I grew up was to buy as much bread as I liked and eat all of it. When me and my sister were really desperately hungry we would go to the countryside and catch insects to eat, the best were grasshoppers which were delicious when my mother fried them for us.

Along with the hunger and terrible living conditions there was the constant fear of the regime. In most countries, a mother encourages her children to ask about everything, but not in North Korea. As soon as I was old enough to understand, my mother warned me that I should be careful about what I was saying. “Remember, Yeonmi-ya,” she said gently, “even when you think you’re alone, the birds and mice can hear you whisper.”

My father had a natural entrepreneurial spirit and had he been born in another country I’m sure he would have been a brilliant business man. However, as North Korea is a strict communist state any business venture outside state control is strictly prohibited. When my father was caught operating his metal selling business he was sent to a brutal prison camp.

We were bought and sold like cattle and repeatedly raped. 

In 2007 we decided we had no choice but to try to escape to China. My sister went to a broker and travelled to China ahead of us, my mother and I followed her the next day. We didn’t know at the time that the broker was the first in a long line of middle men that bought and sold North Korean women for the Chinese sex trade. My mother and I went through a harrowing journey in which we were bought and sold like cattle and repeatedly raped. The story is too long to share completely here but we did eventually make it to the safety of South Korea.

I’d survived starving in North Korea and being sold and abused in China, I now not only had to come to terms with all of it but also had to adapt myself to an entirely new culture and way of living. South Korea has special transition centres to help new North Korean defectors learn how the modern world works. In a way the centres are like boot camps for time travellers. We learned how to use ATM’s, credit cards and the internet. I was amazed shopping was something people did for fun. Even with the special integration system when I was released into South Korean society I was well behind my peers. I had to work incredibly hard to catch up. I made myself read 100 books a year and devotedly studied all the popular music and celebrities of the past few decades so I could catch up.

Today I consider myself lucky to be studying at university in the US and campaigning for my fellow North Koreans. I believe one of the best ways to help North Koreans will be through technology. I am supporting a campaign called Flashdrives for Freedom which uses donated flash drives to smuggle banned content into North Korea. It has taken a long time and a lot of hard work for me to get where I am today but I don’t take all that I’ve gained for granted. I want to use the freedom I have and use my story to make a difference for the North Koreans who are still trapped, the ones who aren’t so lucky.

Yeonmi Park is the author of In Order to Live, published by Penguin and available now in paperback for £9.99.

She will be talking about her escape from North Korea at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday July 2nd as part of Southbank Centre's Power of Power festival.  Tickets are available here.