Yeonmi Park has to be the bravest girl/woman in the world. She was born in the North Korean city of Hyesan which is separated by a river to the Chinese border and at the age of 13, she boldly and bravely managed to escape from there and gain her freedom. Yeonmi Park’s autobiography written at the age of 18, is the beacon of light that shines all the way into the darkness and obscurity of people’s everyday lives in the extremely repressed nation state of North Korea.
She was brought up in a constant state of high anxiety brought on by living under the dictatorship of the Kim dynasty. As a child her mother cautioned her for speaking out loud as the mice and rats could hear her thoughts. She knew nothing of the outside of world other than what she was taught in school – that Americans were evil bastards.
People in North Korea daily face the most oppressive regime left in all the world. North Korea is the ideological buffer zone between the East and Russia; along with the West and South Korea and the USA. It’s a terrifying place that exists because there has to be some sort of pageantry to denote might and nuclear capabilities, no matter how ridiculous the whole spectacle seems to people living outside of it.
Yeonmi paints the realities of living in a world that’s filled with the everyday horrors of watching people collapse and die on the street, with their insides ripped out by hungry dogs. A world of collecting bugs and dragon flies in the nearby paddocks to feed yourself and your sister because your parents have been taken away by the Kim government. A world where a woman is brutally and publicly executed for the innocent act of watching a banned American TV show.
At the age of 13, Yeonmi Park and her mother decided to escape from the harrowing lives they led in North Korea. In order to get to South Korea they had to take a circuitous route through the freezing Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Along the way they put their lives in the hands of a series of people smugglers who treated them like merchandise, abused them and sold them into sex slavery.
When people talk about young people having an older and wiser head on their shoulders, they are probably talking about Yeonmi. It’s awe-inspiring how strong, wise and bold she had to be at the young age of 13. She made a lot of adult decisions and did a lot of bold and brave things in order to stay alive and in order to keep her family alive and then she made the gutsy decision to tell her story.
She wrote this book in spite of an army of thousands of internet trolls from North Korea who attack her underneath of her YouTube speeches, and call her a lying whore and casting doubt on her story. As a part of the weak and hapless attempts by the Kim government to cast doubt on her story. Anybody with half a brain can see it’s a pathetic tactic by an increasingly desperate regime, akin to an elephant being afraid of a baby mouse. The Kim government, sensing that they are threatened by a young woman who formerly had no agency or power and is now a public figure around the world, are hell-bent on proving her story to be fake, by producing ridiculously low-spec and silly videos to try and discredit her and make her look like a liar. And a series of strange and silly comments under YouTube videos with her story in it. In terms of information wars, it’s incredibly desperate.
Honestly, it’s terrifying that one of the most brutal regimes in the world is against me. To them, life means nothing compared with their need for power. Now not only my life is at risk, but all of my relatives’ lives are at risk. It’s a huge responsibility and it almost made me want to give up the whole project altogether. I’m terrified that they’ll do something to my relatives. But I knew what was going on in North Korea and I knew I had to speak about it. It was unacceptable. – Yeonmi Park
Yeonmi told her story despite the fact that in traditional circles, talking about the sexual slavery she had to endure would somehow mean a harsh judgement upon her character, not the people who did that to her.
Yeonmi rose above all of this, as terrifying as all of that is, she and was brave enough to tell her story.
She did it so that the millions of other people escape from North Korea and who go through hell in the process, are given a voice as well. Like all refugees, these people are voiceless, homeless, with limited agency and power. And so as an advocate and a powerful voice for the voiceless – Yeonmi Park is a true hero.
As a result of reading In Order to Live, I am now acutely aware of the suffering of the North Korean people and feel that everyone in the world should read this book. It’s eloquently written, painfully immediate and you won’t be able to put it down. As far as autobiographies go, this is about as intense as they get. I recommend you read it and when you do – you may feel, like I do, an immense sense of gratitude for living in a Western country where we have the freedom to do and say as we please, and go anywhere we please, so long as we don’t hurt anyone.
Right now more than ever – there needs to be more dialogue about North Korea. And by dialogue I mean we need to understand the stories of the people really impacted by the Kim Government, those living under the yoke of the most insane autocracy in modern day existence.
These people are made visible through Yeonmi’s story and so we all have a duty to read it and then understand the implications of starting a nuclear war with North Korea. Every day is a battle between life and death for people there. Liberating them from those evil freaks would be ideal.
Park is now studying criminal justice in South Korea and working as an activist, most recently speaking at the One Young World summit in Dublin and at the UN Human Rights session on North Korea. Here is one of her most powerful speeches.
There are thousands of people who are going through this and their stories cannot be heard. If you can be more open about this, then it will help others talk about it. In North Korean society, for a woman to admit these kinds of things, it’s the end of the world. Our tradition is purity, virginity – for a woman, that is everything. A woman cannot talk about the bad things that happen to her. So writing this did feel like the end of the world for me. – Yeonmi Park
I really hope this book will shine a light on the darkest place in the world. We don’t feel like human beings: people don’t feel that they can connect with North Koreans, that we’re so different. People are making jokes about Kim Jong-un’s haircut, about how fat he is – this country is a joke, really. It is a joke, but it is a tragic joke, that this kind of thing can happen to 25 million people. These things shouldn’t be allowed to happen to anyone, because another Holocaust is happening and the west is saying: “It isn’t happening, it’s a joke, it’s funny – things can’t be that serious.” But we are repeating history – there are thousands of testimonies, you can see the concentration camps from satellite photos, so many people are dying. Just listen to my testimony, to the testimonies in front of the United Nations. I just hope people will read the book and will listen. – Yeonmi Park
Her amazing story has a happy postscript
In 2017, she recently got married to an American and gained the sort of romantic love she always dreamt about as a child, but never believed possible.
The Macabre and creepy world of the Hermit Kingdom
Guaranteed to make your hair stand on end with the superbly orchestrated display of devotion to a supreme egoist and master of horrors.
11 thoughts on “Book Review: In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park”
Didn’t read your review too closely as I’ll probably read this! I find the north Korea memoirs quite inspirational as well
Yeah good idea as I think there were a fair few spoilers in there. 😉 I know you will love this book like I did. Let me know of any other North Korean biographies you recommend 🙂
As far as I can tell…they’re all really great! I have only read the girl with 7 names which is brilliant…but have two or three others waiting to be read. North Korea is such brutal place that it tends to produce these incredibly inspirational stories that make you want to be a bit better
OK thanks for this I am going to put Girl with the 7 names on my reading list it sounds brilliant. Yes I agree, stories like this are very grounding and make you realise how great and easy a life you have had in comparison to others. It’s so important to read these kinds of stories isn’t it.
Yes it is. You know there’s another one…about a guy who was born on one of those horrifying labour camps in the north. Can’t recall the name but I bought it….There’s some unbelievable stories out there
OK that one sounds good too. I love the triumph over adversity type of novels, really uplifting.
I read this last week. Another amazing story! As good as the girl with 7 names. I have one more to go in the North Korean collection…
I’ve ordered it in at Wellington library, Girl with 7 Names, as we speak 🙂
Wonderful story, hope you enjoy it
Thank you I’m sure I will 🙂