Yeonmi lived with her sister Enunmi and their parents in a small house in Hyesan, just across the Yalu river from China. She would watch the Chinese children on the opposite bank of the river. They were fat and healthy. Unlike her and her sister. Yeonmi was starving. Food was scarce and most days they’d only have one small meal. If they were lucky and the power was working they would have a bowl of hot rice. But most of the time there was no power to their small suburb so they’d eat a cold meal in the dark, huddled by the fire. They were kept warm by each other’s love. But love was not even a word used in North Korea. There is no translation for it. “The only true love we can express is worship for the Kims.”
Yeonmi’s family were not rich because their social status or "songbun" in North Korea was considered dubious. Their songbun was determined by forces out of their control. Like whether their extended family members had ever committed a crime. Or if their ancestors had owned land when the country became ruled by the Kim family and therefore more likely to oppose the communist rule and “The Great Leader”.
Because of their low songbun status, Yeonmi’s family could not hold high paying jobs. They were assigned jobs by the state that paid poorly and required long hours. This forced her parents to take on other work - like smuggling contraband into North Korea (banned western videos like Titanic), which was illegal and lead to more danger and much hardship.
Even though they were starving; even though they had no power or running water to their home, even though they wore rags and their hair was permanently full of lice, they still loved and honoured their Great Leader Kim Jong Il. They knew nothing else. They knew only what they had been taught. That Kim Il Sung, the first of the Kim Dictators, was a hero who fought against the evil Americans in 1950 when the South tried to conquer North Korea. That he had won the war and saved North Korea from the enemy. They had no way of knowing that all of it was a lie. That the opposite was true.
Even if they had known or suspected, they couldn’t have even uttered a word. As Yeonmi’s mother used to tell her: “Even the birds and mice can hear you whisper”. To speak ill of the regime in anyway could result in being taken from your home at night and taken prisoner as an enemy of the state.
As Yeonmi tells her story it reads like George Orwell’s 1984. Big Brother is watching. You must love him and honour him. If you so much as doubt him you will be caught. You will be tortured. Then, you will learn to love him. If you are lucky your mind will not ponder. You will not commit thoughtcrime. You will not ask any questions. You will simply believe what you are told. You will rise when the bell tolls on the radio and you will serve your leader and country. You are kept in the dark. But if you are wise you will not seek the truth or the light. You will simply honour your leader.
The parallels are so strong between the two that even Yeonmi herself references the book. It’s almost as if the Kim’s read 1984 and decided to use it as the basis for North Korea. Like an extreme version of Stockholm Syndrome, even a country full of prisoners can learn to love their captors. They can even learn to worship them and tell themselves they believe their lies.
Yeonmi’s tale is both heart-breaking and shocking. I had never understood the extremity of deceit carried out in North Korea. I knew they didn’t have the internet, radio signal or access to honest media. I knew that they were kept in the dark and that was how the Kim’s kept control. But I didn’t realise they level of poverty that existed. When the Kim’s live a lavish life of luxury, the people of North Korea starve and die. Unless they escape.
What really resonated with me was that in the early 90’s, when I was 10, sitting at home watching Beverly Hills 90210 and eating a happy meal, Yeonmi was starving. Her father had been arrested for smuggling contraband and she and her sister, aged seven and nine were living alone while her mother fought to have him released. They lived off wild plants, dragon flies and handouts from the people of the neighbourhood.
How could this injustice be happening in my lifetime?
But it is still happening.
Yeonmi and her family managed to break free. They fled North Korea in order to live and now Yeonmi is doing just that. She is making a difference as an ambassador for human rights, speaking out against the regime and the corrupt Kims. She has received death threats and is considered a traitor by her former country.
Yeonmi’s Memoir is an eye opening tale of injustice, determination and strength. Yeonmi Park is an inspiration and her story must be told. Read this book. Buy copies for everyone you know.