Park Yeon Mi (박연미) was born in 1993 in North Korea where she lived until March 30th 2007 when she and her mother fled the oppressive and secretive nation to defect to South Korea via China. Her full story on her escape can be read in this article from The Telegraph but I will try to give a brief overview of what happened leading up to her arrival in Seoul.
“Yeon Mi’s father was a mid-ranking civil servant” who sold precious metals to Chinese smugglers to keep his family fed. Once he was caught doing this in 2002, he was sentenced to 17 years in a prison near Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea – formally Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. After being tortured in unimaginable ways for 3 years he managed to bribe his way out of prison and then began the family’s planning for defection to South Korea – formally Republic of Korea. Eunmi, Yeon Mi’s sister, at the age of 16, fled North Korea without telling her family so Yeon Mi and her mother left home on March 30th 2007 to find her.
“They crossed three mountains and finally came to a frozen river that separated the two countries. It was desperately cold, Yeonmi says, and she remembers feeling terrified that the ice beneath them would give. But they eventually made it to the other side. On dry land, they ran. ‘I ran so fast. The only thing I could think was that I could get shot. I ran and ran and ran.’” Once finally inside China, they began looking for Eunmi, but had no luck. After a period of time passed, Yeon Mi’s father also fled to find where his family was. He found them, but died before being able to leave China. His wife and daughter had to bribe a coroner to burn his body at 3am the following day, after which he was buried in the mountains.
Yeonmi and her mother travelled through China and the Gobi desert into Mongolia where they were detained for many days and then finally put on a plane to Incheon airport in Seoul where they are living now.
Yeon Mi now studies criminal justice at Dongguk University, one of Korea’s best, and is frequently on talk shows around the world raising awareness of what is happening in North Korea. Today she did an interview The Guardian newspaper and I’d like to show your some of her answers.
Is North Korea governed solely by fear, or is there a religious element that actually reveres the leader? What’s the split and is there an identifiably rebellious subculture, hidden from the rulers?
“During my parent’s time, the cult of the Kims was an actual religion. Most people were happy to serve, even though they starved. Towards the end of Kim Jong-il’s time things started to change. People’s perceptions changed. In my case it is because we didn’t get rations promised to us by the regime, which really made us disillusioned.
There is a small group of people who defy the regime, but not openly. You can’t share your opinion publicly like you can here. I think Pyongyang has more people who support the regime as they consider themselves “chosen people” so take pride in their position. But there are people in the capital who don’t support Kim Jong-un of course.
Your life is predestined. Everything is pre-determined for you. North Korea has a Sungbun system, which determined your social class, decided by the regime. You can’t escape this, ever. There is no education in North Korea, like you have here, just brainwashing. In my opinion, this is one of the country’s worst human rights abuses. For some time I believed Kim Jong-il could read my mind! I was afraid to think! It was paralysing. This is how they numb your brain and suppress you. This is total brainwashing.”
The concept of living in fear of someone reading your thoughts, disapproving of them and killing you and your family for it, is something I can’t even begin to understand; in fact, most people will struggle to understand how you can believe someone can read your mind. We need to understand that from birth, the children of North Korea are brought up under the impression that the Kim family are gods. From the beginning to the end of their lives they are fed more and more propaganda telling them how amazing they are and how terrible USA and South Korea are. They are told that these countries are to blame for the constant blackouts and the Great Famine – or “arduous march” if you prefer the ridiculous North Korean term.
What’s the view on tourists going there?
“Its a very controversial issue. As a defector it is difficult for me to have an opinion, I am biased. Personally, I don’t mind that people go there, but people should go there for the people, to care about them, and not to go there and show a bad example of freedom. Bowing in front of Kim’s statue, for me, is like bowing in front of Hitler’s statue, but I’ve seen people do this a lot.”
I don’t think I need to say much here; Yeon Mi depicted her views perfectly. If you ever go to North Korea, remember these words.
How was sport regarded in North Korea? Was it openly enjoyed or a tool of social control?
“When people win, they have to say a speech, and talk about how their success comes from King Jong-un. Nothing escapes the regime. If you lose, you can be punished, or even sent to jail. Sport just becomes propaganda.”
Have you ever suffered prejudice in SK cos you were born in the North? Is this a problem for defectors or are people accepting?
“South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates of the OECD countries, but North Koreans living in the South have a suicide rate three times higher. This shows how difficult life is for people from the North living in the South. I get asked all the time if I’ve ever eaten human flesh, if I’m a spy or why I’m coming to their country. People treat us like potential terrorists. I learned this in my class at university when my lecturer openly said that North Koreans are potential terrorists (he didn’t know I was North Korean).”
South Korea must take better care of those defecting from their Northern counterparts. I am not saying they don’t take care of them, Yeon Mi is a living example of the fact that they do, but more is to be done. Several northern defectors have even defected from South Korea, back to DPRK, and though these are extremely rare cases amongst the 10,000 who have fled they should not be ignored. The main issue the North Koreans face is re-integration and this is where the help needs to be focused.
What are the most useful things I can do to help North Korean people?
“First of all, we need to raise awareness on an international level. Until now, we have have given lots of attention to The Kims, but not enough to victims. We need to change the way we talk about, and report on North Korea to focus on the people. The Kims have had enough attention. We need to realise that the people in North Korea are just normal people like you and I. Yes, people are brainwashed and live a different life to ours, but they are still people, so we must avoid dehumanising them.”
So here I am, that’s what I’m doing and that’s what I will continue to do.
Since arriving in Seoul, Yeon Mi’s mother has begged her to stop speaking out against the Kim family after finding out she was on a list of targets the North Koreans want rid of. She very briefly entertained the idea of stopping but swiftly decided she would carry on with what she set out to do: raise awareness.
“When I was crossing the Gobi desert I thought nobody really cared, you know? Even though I was dying there nobody was going to remember me. These girls too. They are dying. They are being raped. But nobody is going to remember them. Nobody is going to care for them. That is why I thought, “I’m going to do this and there is no way I will stop doing this.””
For more on North Korea, check out my previous post about the work of Eric Lafforgue, a photographer who has been on many tours in North Korea – North Korea, secret photos and how they view America.