Escaping North Korea with Yeon-Mi Park

Yeon-Mi Park, a North Korean defector and activist, addresses the 7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.


To Be Confirmed

Full Remarks

Good morning everyone. 

I was so depressed to hear all of these heartbreaking stories; it’s really difficult to hear. But we all know that it’s something that happened to our brothers and sisters at this moment.

So today, I just wanted to share my personal story and I just wanted to show how ordinary people are living in North Korea today. So before I start, there are two things that I’m most grateful for: that I was born in North Korea and that I escaped from North Korea. These events shaped my life and made me who I am today. 

I was born in the city of Hyesan, North Korea, on the Chinese border. I could never cross over in the daytime because there were border guards with a gun who would shoot me. North Korea is an unimaginable country, where there is so much suffering and there’s no freedom allowed. But it is also a place of hope because of our young generation, my generation, who have more exposure to the outside world and to the markets. 

There is a songbun [caste] system that divides everybody in North Korea, and that is what decides your opportunities and positions in life. You don’t have to plan anything, and you don’t have to think too much. The government tells you what to do, what to wear, what to think, even before you are born. 

Going to school was different there. We were taught that all Americans were evil and even Westerners. Everyone who is here [is] evil so I thought you guys were all evil. And I could never just say “Americans.” I had to say “American bastards”! And I knew only a few countries in the world: America, Japan and South Korea. And perhaps I heard of more countries, but I never knew Australia or  Switzerland, like these kind of countries. And they told us Americans were trying to attack us every moment and we blamed them for everything. So if I was sitting in the room and the power went off, I’d say “Oh American bastards!” because it had to be their fault. That really became a joke for North Koreans, to believe that.  

We were taught to worship the great leaders Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jung Il. They were like our fathers and grandfathers and we had to love them because they sacrificed so much for us. I thought our leader could read my mind. One of my first memories is of my mother telling me not to even whisper, “the birds and mice can hear you.” So even thinking was not free in that country. 

My older sister and I learned about the Kims in school. But in our house my father taught us something else. When I was seven years old he told me that as long as you know how to count the money, then you don’t have to learn anything from school. My father was a party member and he also had a side business doing unauthorised trading with China. In other words, he was a smuggler. 

I was born in 1993. In 1994, Kim Il-Sung, the first Kim dictator died, and his son Kim Jong-Un took over. But because the Soviet Union had broken up, nobody was helping North Korea anymore. Before then, we were given rations. But the distribution system collapsed, so there was a famine during that time and maybe a million people or more than that died from starvation. I saw bodies on the streets and children literally dying of starvation because there were no rations to go around. The only way to survive was the black market. 

My generation, those born in the 80s and 90s, are called the Black Market Generation, or ‘Jangmadang’, our word for market. We had to find our own ways to survive by breaking rules and operating markets. The main characteristic of my generation is that we have been more exposed to the outside world. Even though the North Korean regime tries so hard to crack down on outside information, it is always being brought in through the media, smuggled from China on the black market. 

Even when I was young, I watched a lot of American movies like Cinderella, Snow White. The Titanic was a big one. It was a turning point in my life, I just couldn’t believe it: How could somebody make a movie out of such a shameful story? Because in North Korea everything [is] about the leader. There’s no independent newspaper, only one channel on TV and you are not allowed to listen to anything you want. Nothing but propaganda about the leaders. But the Titanic movie was not about our leader, it was about love, humanity, and [a] man dying for [a] woman. And that was something showing me the difference, showing me there was another world and it also gave me a taste of freedom. 

Watching the foreign media, that was a true joy for me; to share such a different world, to see how people can express themselves in a unique way. And that was impossible in North Korea. In North Korea, the government tells us what to say, what to wear, what to watch, what kind of music to listen to. We can’t even wear jeans, we can’t dye our hair, and can’t dance the way we want. But we watch movies where people can do whatever they want. They can express themselves freely. These things are really changing the young[er] generation in North Korea today. They see the movies; they want to wear jeans, they want to dye their hair. Foreign media is what is setting us free now. 

So the Black Market Generation is more individualistic and capitalistic. We are buying and selling on the markets. And here’s an important point: once you start trading for yourself, you start thinking for yourself and that’s a big threat to the totalitarian government in North Korea. Markets undermine the songbun system, where North Koreans put people into strict classes. Before, the government decide[d] who was to survive and who to starve. But the markets took that away from the government’s control. 

In 2002, my whole world came crashing down. My father, my hero, got arrested for black market trading. He was sent to a labour camp and suddenly our lives were destroyed. In North Korea, my father’s sins [are] my sins so I’m guilty too. I was a criminal’s daughter, there was no way I could have a bright future anymore. My father was tortured in the prison camp and he got very sick. It was colon cancer but we didn’t know at that time. But he managed to survive later and he came out to get treatment. But even though he came back, he couldn’t work so we were still hungry. 

With no hope, with no food, in 2007 our family decided to escape. My sister left first and my mother and I followed her later. At that time, I had no idea how it would be in China. I just thought we would have some food, something to eat there and I wouldn’t starve. That’s how I was thinking. I was so naive. Things got even worse for us in China. My mother and I crossed a frozen river at night, only to learn right away that we were tricked by human traffickers. The Chinese broker wanted to have sex with me when I was 13 years old, when I didn’t even know the word ‘sex’. My mother sacrificed herself in order to protect me. I saw her [being] raped in front of my eyes. We spent the next 18 months in hiding and terrified of being caught by Chinese police. 

The Chinese government treats North Korean defectors in China as criminals. [If] they catch us, they’ll send us back to North Korea even though they know that we are going to be imprisoned or executed. So we are extremely vulnerable in China. Eighty percent of North Korean women are victims of this. And these girls, like me, 13 years old, 15, 20, girls just like you and me, are being sold, sometimes for as little as 200 dollars. And it’s something we have to think about. What can we do here with 200 dollars? At this moment right now in China, girls just like us, like me, are being sold for this money. Not many people know about this and I believe it’s something that has to stop right now. 

My father would have joined us in China but he was sick and he died a few months later. So I buried his ashes at 3 AM in the middle of night. I thought, “I cannot live like this anymore, this is not living like a human being. I’ve got to do something about it.” Finally in 2009, during the coldest time of winter, we joined a small band of North Korean refugees, making a dangerous escape across the Gobi Desert into Mongolia. It was freezing cold that night and we couldn’t use our compass, so we followed the stars north, walking and crawling to freedom. We had hidden small knives in our sleeves to kill ourselves if we were captured or if Mongolian soldiers would try to send us back to China. There was no going back. Luckily, we made it to Mongolia and to South Korea later.

In South Korea I learned amazing things. They told me all human beings are equal and have rights and have freedom. And also, we are born with the rights that nobody can take away from us. And I believe that North Koreans are born with the same rights that we have now. And to be honest, I admit that when I look at the situation now, and the challenges the North Korean people are facing in this moment, I feel really hopeless. And sometimes I fear that dictators in this world have so much power. We say here justice, democracy, freedom, or human rights; all these words are too luxurious to me. 

Two weeks ago I went to San Francisco and then I visited the Holocaust Museum and I heard this: “Never say there is no hope, never say there is no hope.” This is the song of resistance fighters, who fought against mostly inhuman tragedy. 

There’s a lot of tragedy happening right now today in North Korea: political prison camps, torture, things the United Nations rapporteur has documented as crimes against humanity. Right now, at this moment, hundreds of thousands people in North Korea are dying from starvation or being tortured. But I believe in hope. I believe someday North Korean people will be free like all of us, using iPhones, internet, laptops, and they will never get killed again for making unauthorised international phone calls or watching foreign movies. This is what is happening right now in North Korea. 

For seven decades, Kim dictators have oppressed North Koreans and no dictatorship gives up power without demand. We must demand that North Korea stops starving their people and oppressing its own people and respect their human rights. It isn’t just North Korean human rights, but also human rights. Our rights that have [been] violated for seven decades [by] dictatorships all over the world. Remember, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King Jr. said.

I’m extremely grateful to be here and to share my story. When I was crossing the Gobi Desert, I wasn’t really afraid of dying as much as I was afraid of being forgotten; that I would die in the desert and nobody would know, and nobody would know my name or care if I died or lived. But you have listened, you have cared. 

Thank you so much for bringing hope to my people and together we can change North Korean lives. Thank you very much. 

7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, February 23, 2015

Speakers and Participants

Yeon-Mi Park

North Korean defector, she witnessed first-hand the regime’s atrocities against its own people


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