After escaping from North Korea a young activist raise social awareness about the current situation in the closed country. Yeon-mi Park, now being just 24 years old, has already given her speech during the global human rights conferences “One Young World”, “Oslo Freedom Forum” and has already worked in projects with Torry Burch Foundation and SXSW participants. What is her story? 

After all those years in North Korea, it’s almost like an extra life I’ve got. Because I could have easily died 100 times.  It’s not like I’m special, I’m just lucky.

Now, living in New York City, Yeon-Mi has an opportunity to speak open about her previous life experience. Here is the short story of her coming-of-age.

The Confession of a Child

She was born in Ryanggang in North Korea in 2003, and her childhood was quite secure and comfortable. She was growing up with an older sister Eunmini, father, who worked as a cilvil servant, and mother – a nurse for the North Korean Army. “In fact, her family was considered “wealthy” by traditional North Korean standards”, – claims Robert Jones from “Infinite Fire”. However, Yeon-mi escaped with her mother from North Korea back to 2007, being just 13 years old. They aimed to reach China in order to find Eunmini, who should have escaped earlier.

If I did not leave that country, then I would die from starvation or disease. So I had to leave the country, even though that meant was to being sold as a slave

With little knowledge where they were going, Yeon-mi and her mother did not come across Eunmini, but were discovered and captured by the border soldiers. Although Yeon-Mi was so young at that time, the soldiers threatened her and “demanded to have sex with her, or else they would deport her and her mother back to North Korea, where they would almost certainly be executed”. In order to save the daughter, her mother offered herself to the soldiers. That sexual harassment sticked in mind of young girl for a long time.

But that was just the begging – Yeon-mi and her mother were eventually sold to a sex-trafficking organization, which forced them both into a life of prostitution. According to Yeon-mi’s speech on the summit, they were sold for less than 200$. Practically, that is cheaper than an Iphone nowadays. Later they escaped and reunited with the father of the family. However, being illegally on the terrirory of China, they did not have a lot of opportunities. A short after Yeon-Mi’s father died. Being 14 years old, she buried her father somewhere in the mountains. From that point, the decision to run further could not be postponed.

By 2009, after crossing the Gobi desert, Yeon-Mi and her mother met guardians on the border of Mongolia. There they were also threatened to be send back to North Korea, but eventually that did not happen. Both of them made their way to South Korea, and that was the moment from where the searched freedom must have begun.

Free Coasting

She started studying law in the South Korean university, which after developed into het immigration and further studies in the US. According to Jonathan Wolfe from “The New York Times“, since 2001 only 20 North Korean refugees have resettled in NY. Two of them, and one is Yeon-Mi Park, started studying in Columbia University in 2015. In America Yeon-mi contributed her gained knowledge into human rights activism projects and shortly after she became a recognizable media person. Before moving to the US, in 2014 she gave a speech in Dublin in the annual summit “One Long World”, where the nonprofits gather the young leaders from around the world to talk about the most pressing issues. Certainly, after that speech the activity of Yeon-mi became well-known and widely discussed.

Since living in the US, she volunteers for the Freedom Factory Corporation, a free market think tank in South Korea, and is an active member of LINK (Liberty in North Korea), a non-profit organization which rescues refugees hiding in China by resettling them in South Korea or in the US. She continues giving the speeches, and she has already told the story of her life during the Oslo Freedom Forum, a global conference organized by Human Rights Foundation.

In 2016 she published a book called “In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom”, which has already been several times republished. Here is a quote by Yeon-mi, which opens several annotations and reviews to the book:

I am most grateful for two things: that I was born in North Korea, and that I escaped from North Korea.

However, her written projects do not end by the book. Yeon-mi told also told her story to “The Washington Post”, “The Guardian” and other media.

For now the most affluent projects where Yeon-mi takes part are #EmbraceAmbition from Tory Burch Foundation, which defends the rights of woman in modern society. Anther project is supported by the leading media companies (CNN, Business Insider, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Economist, BBC, Fox News) and is called “Flash drivers for freedom“. As it is claimed on the web-page, USBs “are a significant form of sharing information in North Korea <…> So for many years, North Korean defectors have organized efforts to smuggle outside info into North Korea on USB drives to counter Kim Jong-un’s constant propaganda”. That is why the campaign appeals to donate Flash Drivers. They will be filled with content inspiring North Koreans to disbelieve Kim Jong-Un’s propaganda: offline Korean wikipedia, e-books and films.

To believe or not to believe  

The stories, which were told by Yeon-Mi, are being nowadays often left in doubt. It happens as a result of “discrepancies in the articles written about Yeon-mi“. Recently there were also different videos posted in Youtube, insisting on disclosing the lies of North Korean refugee. The article on the web-page “The Diplomat” meticulously exposes those inaccuracies.

Some of those discrepancies can be explained by the language bareer, as she gave the interviews before she was fluent in English. The other fact is, that Yeon-mi had been trafficked in China, and she tried to avoid telling all the details of her life in that period. As far as she was concerned, that could have destroyed her future prospects and projects in South Korea and other countries. However, after plunging actively into human rights activism, she apologized for any discrepancies in her records and interviews. She after determined that her book would be scrupulously accurate. Another reason for discrepancies can be the trauma: as it is claimed by “The Guardian”, countless scientific investigations prove the changes in processing the memories after coming over a tragedy. At the same time those minor discrepancies or the lack of accurate sequence, details do not bring the whole story into discredit from the point of her followers. “The whole story does not emerge until the survivor finds a way to tell it”, – writes Maryanne Vollers, the author and the journalist of The Guardian.

All those discrepancies do not influence on the general interest for the topic. On the micro-level one can see it as the Facebook page of Yeon-mi has more than 100 000 subscribers. On the level of global policy, by the Chiefs of States changes are introduced until now: recently Donald Trump announced North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, what would definitely further resonate in media.

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