Yeon-mi Park, North Korean defector and human rights activist, was the keynote speaker at UGA’s International Education Week last year. Students packed Tate Grand Hall to hear her talk frankly entitled, In Order to Live: My Journey to Freedom, which is also the title of her New York Times bestselling book. She recounted her life in North Korea, her escape, and finally her life currently as a human rights activist.
Yeon-mi Park was born on October 4, 1993, in Hyesan, North Korea. As she grew up, she did not have friends, but rather “comrades,” as she referred to them in her speech. She was taught not to trust any of her classmates, to hate America, and adhere to North Korean propaganda. In school, Park was given math problems such as, “There are four American b*****ds, you kill two, how many American b*****ds are there left to kill?”
North Korea is the most isolated country in the world. The internet did not exist in any form to Park. Her first introduction to American cinema, in fact, was an illegal copy of the movie, Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The seemingly benign act of watching such a movie was a crime punishable in North Korea by death.
In a similar way, she had never heard of the story Romeo and Juliet. The idea of a man dying because he loved a woman, and not for his leader, introduced to her a completely novel concept. In North Korea, love for fellow humans was something to hide and be ashamed of rather than something to celebrate.
In 2007, Park escaped to China where she and her mother were sold into the human trafficking business. She became the mistress of one of the human trafficking brokers who said that he would help her track down the rest of her family, but only if she would stop fighting his sexual advances. The broker made good on his promise, and Park was reunited with her parents. But shortly thereafter, Park’s father died.
After she was released from her broker, Park met Christian missionaries who helped her and her mother get into South Korea through Mongolia. Once in South Korea, she learned how to speak English by watching Friends. She also learned how to think for herself. In North Korea, no one ever cared for her thoughts or interests. She says that she had never even been asked for her favorite color before her escape (in case you were curious, it’s spring green).
Naturally, Park never meant to become an activist. However, while she was at first in survival mode, she notes that the pieces gradually fell into place for her current occupation. Now she travels the world speaking out in broken English against injustices far and wide. She is known for her very passionate and personal speeches. Trust me when I say that there is no doubt in an audience’s mind that she speaks from her heart, often with tears in her eyes. As of late, Park is engaged to be married. Of her plans for her future, she states that her dream is to one day take her future children to visit their extended family in a free North Korea.
To tie things into the politics we more often hear about . . . things could be far, far worse. While our governmental system, those in government, or legislation may be flawed, at least we still have a say in what happens to us. We have the Bill of Rights protecting us from both the government and each other, the Declaration of Independence reminding us that it was governmental tyranny that spawned our country, and the Constitution permeating every aspect and every initiative the government or its members devise. We have basic human rights and freedoms that are not available to billions of people. As Americans, we are members of the free world and can watch Leonardo DiCaprio die in a variety of ways without fearing for our own life. And this is something we should be mindful of, cherish, and protect.
— Marie Walker is a Freshman studying history and theater.
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