In 1993, a young girl was born into moderate privilege in Hyesan, North Korea. As the daughter of mid-level civil servants, her parents were able to still maintain a lifestyle for her that fewer and fewer parents in her country were able to provide for their children. But even governmental service can only protect individuals so far in a regime as oppressive as that of Kim Jong-Il’s. It wasn’t long before Yeon-mi’s parents were forced to resort to smuggling silver, nickel and gold into China just to feed their two small daughters.
In 2014, the UN released a long-anticipated 400 page report detailing an horrific laundry list of crimes against humanity committed by the North Korean government, many of which took place in hundreds of government-run hard labor camps. In 2002, Yeon-mi’s own father was arrested and sentenced to 17 years in one of these camps. There, she witnessed his health deteriorate rapidly as he experienced many of the same beatings and torture detailed in the UN report. The report included witness testimony of mass starvation, torture, rape, forced abortions and even infanticide. One prisoner was starved so severely in his 10 months of incarceration that his weight dropped from a healthy 65 lbs to a shocking and alarming 79 lbs.
But people inside the camps were not the only ones to feel the effects of Kim Jong-Il’s oppressive regime. All food was distributed by the government, and the government distributed it based on the individual’s or the region’s value to the government. Any rebellion, major or minor, against the government was dealt with swiftly and severely, with punishments ranging from withholding food to immediate execution without even a trial.
Certain that if they stayed in North Korea they would not survive, Yeon-mi’s mother made plans to get them into China. Once in China, however, their problems would be far from over, as China routinely rooted out defectors and sent them back to North Korea to face an even worse fate than what they were trying to escape from. Yeon-mi, her mother and sister all made it safely into China, but what they found there was not the safe shelter they had hoped for. After more than a year of ongoing horrors, they finally managed to walk and crawl their way into Mongolia, where they found shelter.
Now in Seoul, South Korea,Yeonmi Park of yeonmi.net is a powerful voice for change in North Korea. She maintains an active speaking schedule and is a guest on numerous radio and TV programs. In late 2014, she was asked to speak at the One Young World Summit in Dublin, Ireland. There, she delivered a powerful message that went viral and gained her a new global audience of sympathetic supporters.
It did not take long for the North Korean propaganda machine to kick into overdrive and post an 18 minute video on one of its websites that attempted to refute many of Yeon-mi’s claims. Backed by the similar testimonies of so many others, however, there is little doubt as to the veracity of what Yeon-mi has to say about the true plight of her native state.