Yeonmi Park talks to Al Jazeera about her life inside North Korea, and her traumatic escape to China and beyond.
“‘Where are you going at this time?’ she asked.
‘Just to a friend’s house,’ I said, without looking at her. ‘I’ll be back in a few hours.’
She put on her own coat and walked me out to the front gate holding a kerosene lamp.
‘Don’t stay out too long. Come home quickly.’
She smiled at me.
I didn't know then that this would be my very last time in my homeland, nor did I know that I would be separated from my mum and family for a very long time.
Over the years to come, I could never shake the memory of that moment and the look on her face in the glow of the lamp. I saw love in her eyes. Her face showed complete trust in me.”
Hyeonseo Lee, from The Girl With Seven Names
It was a cold winter’s evening when, without so much as telling her mother, 17-year-old Park Min-Young fled her country.
She knew it was too dangerous to let anyone know of her plans. For, in North Korea, she had learned to trust no one – not family, not friends. Everyone spied on everyone else.
“At the last minute, I really wanted to say to her that I am leaving the country,” she recalls, almost two decades later. “The emotions were very strange.”
Her hometown, Hyesan, was close to the border with China. Only the Yalu River separated the two countries.
On the other side of the border was the Chinese city of Changbai. Its bright lights fascinated her and she wanted to visit. Her family traded with Chinese there, so Park had befriended many North Korean guards. That made it easier for her to cross the heavily militarised border.
When she first stepped on to the thin ice of the frozen river, she imagined that she would return home in a matter of days. But she never did. And, just a few steps later, she was in China.
“I didn’t know then that this would be my very last time in my homeland, nor did I know that I would be separated from my mum and family for a very long time.”
The three Kims
The three Kims – Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and now Kim Jong-Un – have ruled North Korea since the end of World War II. It is a country from which very few escape and into which very little of the outside world seeps.
A pervasive system of propaganda presents a vision of the world in which North Koreans are a privileged few.
“We learned that so many Americans were dying outside hospitals because their capitalistic healthcare system was too expensive,” recalls Park. “That they couldn’t go to schools or universities because they had to pay.”
“We sincerely believed that South Koreans were living like slaves under the American imperialists.”
North Koreans, by contrast, were the beneficiaries of their most beneficent rulers.
“… All North Koreans believe the Kims are gods,” says Park. “I never thought that they did what we normal humans do, like even sleep or use the bathroom.”
It was a view Park began to question in 1994, when President Kim Il-Sung died.
They want people to live in fear and not disobey party orders, they want to control the people
At first, she was caught up in the state of shock that gripped the nation. Then she asked herself: “How could God die? I mean, I could die easily, but surely God couldn’t die.”
“Then my mind changed a bit,” she remembers.
But as Park grappled with these thoughts, the rest of the country engaged in a public display of grief over the death of its ‘Dear Leader’.
The authorities monitored people’s tears – and those who did not cry sufficiently risked public execution, she says.
Public executions and patriarchy
Park witnessed her first public execution when she was only seven: a factory worker hanged beneath a railroad bridge with a sack over his head.
“I had no idea what public execution meant then,” she remembers. “I was shocked and scared but didn’t question it.”
It is mandatory for North Koreans to watch public executions. Flyers are usually posted across towns giving the date and place of execution, and schools and factories often closed on those days.
“They want people to live in fear and not disobey party orders. They want to control the people,” Park reflects.
“Some were real criminals, but others, it was ridiculous. People could get executed for buying rice from China to feed their family or [for being] homosexuals or fortune-tellers. I believe every North Korean has seen a public execution, they have no idea about human rights.”
But while the international community, including the United Nations, has repeatedly condemned North Korea for its human rights record, Park says women are especially poorly treated.
“Man is always above women in our society,” she explains.
And she should know. Born Kim Ji-Hae, Park had to change her name when her mother remarried. Her new family adopted her but, Park explains, “my mother was considered unclean as she had come with a child from another man”.
“So my stepfather’s family did not treat her well. They forced her to change my name and adopt their family name. I think from that time my life changed, I was not meant to be normal like other people.”
“Nobody knew [then] that I will have seven different names, but I did,” she says.
As a teenager, Park began to question her country and those who governed it. She started to compare Hyesan with Changbai. The shimmering lights of the Chinese city piqued her curiosity.
“Especially at night, I could see their lights so clearly,” she remembers. “We North Koreans suffer from power shortages. There would be days when we had no lights, the whole city was a black hole, the whole country was a black hole, we were living in a black hole. They had lights, why didn’t we?”
Living near the border also meant that she could illegally gain access to Chinese television in a country where foreign TV is banned. What she saw amazed her: “Chinese wearing jeans, necklaces and rings, they dyed their hair, all things considered the evils of capitalism in North Korea. It was all so fascinating and I just wondered why we are completely robbed of those things?”
She started to plot her escape to the country she saw on her TV screen and across the river.
China: Ice-cream and television
“Everything seemed suffused with a kind of super-reality, as if I’d come from a world of black and white, into one of Technicolour. It was magical – an illusion enhanced by the myriad sparkling lights in every window display, restaurant and lobby, and on the fir trees that stood everywhere.”
Hyeonseo Lee, from The Girl With Seven Names
China was a “different universe”, a whirlwind of discovery for Park. From Changbai, she made it to Shenyang. She met her father’s cousins, and they took her into their care. She discovered new ice-cream flavours, new cuisines and new music.
She also got a new name. Her uncle, who had fled North Korea after the Korean War, named her Chae Mi-Ran.
Her relatives wanted to protect her from the Chinese authorities, who often arrest and repatriate North Korean defectors.
Days became weeks and the city of Shenyang excited her. But she knew she had to return home.
Her uncle and aunt encouraged her to stay longer, and it took little to persuade her.
She relished not having to worry about her neighbours, watching TV without first drawing the curtains and listening to loud music. What was supposed to have been just a few days outside of the country turned into a month. Her 18th birthday came and went in China.
But now, as an adult, the consequences of failing to return would be severe. Her uncle offered to take her back to Changbai, from where she could make her way back home.
But, a day before she was due to depart, she received a phone call that would change her life. A friendly border guard had informed Park’s mother that she was in China and would return in a few days.
“Don’t come back. We’re in trouble,” she heard her mother say.
Park’s mother had been forced to register her as a missing person. And while this was far safer than reporting her as a defector, the family was still in trouble and would have to lie low in another neighbourhood for a while.
It was too dangerous to return. So, with no money and unable to speak the language, Park – or Chae, as she was now known – had to make it on her own in China.
“China was the most difficult period in my life. I was naive, I was scared, I had to learn Chinese, I had to earn money to survive.”
Worried that she was a burden on her relatives and seeking to avoid marrying a Chinese man to whom she had been engaged, she ran away from her family.
She found a job in a restaurant.
“My salary as a waitress was tiny but when I received it for the first time I was thoroughly happy. In North Korea we don’t have this system, as nothing is private. The state own and controls everything, we are very anti-capitalism. So this was extremely special.”
Living in the shadows
But she was still trapped in a foreign country with no legal identity.
Over the next 10 years, she was forced to change her name three more times. But that wasn’t the only thing she had to change. She had to shed her entire North Korean identity, pretending instead to be a Korean-Chinese.
It meant living in the shadows and, with that, came all sorts of other problems – loneliness, nightmares, despair, depression and fear. At times, she even considered returning to North Korea.
She missed her family and was tired of her life on the run.
And it wasn’t long until the Chinese authorities caught up with her.
Until today, she has no idea why they picked her up from the restaurant. She suspects somebody may have reported her, but doesn’t know who it was.
She was taken to the police station and interrogated.
“It was a horrible experience. I thought my life would end there,” she remembers. “If I was repatriated, my family in North Korea and I would be killed, tortured or imprisoned because that’s what they do.”
“I did my best to act Chinese. I narrowly avoided deportation by being able to write Chinese.”
She also feigned ignorance of President Kim Il-Sung’s birthday, the most important day in the North Korean calendar.
For many years, she lived without a real identity, paying people who promised to get her a Chinese ID card only to take her money and deliver nothing in return.
And then she met a man in an ice-cream parlour who offered to see what he could do. He had an aunt who was a marriage broker, he said.
Months passed before she got a call from a woman in Harbin. It was the man’s aunt. She had an ID card that belonged to a mentally ill Korean-Chinese girl. Her family wanted to sell the card to raise money for her care.
“It is not like just one small card,” she says, “because it meant everything to me. It is real, not fake. With it I could make a passport, I need not worry about anything. I was now a Chinese citizen.”
“The card gave me hope, hope to escape this wretched life in the shadows, to be free.”
And with the new ID card came a new name – her sixth – Park Min-Ja.
“I was high on optimism. I vowed to myself that I would succeed in this beautiful country, no matter what. I would make it proud of me. I thanked it with all my heart for accepting me.”
Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl With Seven Names
A decade after escaping from North Korea as Park Min-Young and now a Chinese citizen called Park Sun-Ja, she plotted her escape once again – this time to South Korea.
Upon arriving in Seoul, the South Korean capital, she sought asylum. It was granted a few months later.
“The two Koreas have been divided for so long,” she says.
“North Koreans have become the forgotten people. I now know that we attacked South Korea first in the war and many South Koreans suffered. So they are prejudiced and think of us as enemies.”
“As North Korean defectors we are treated as second-class citizens in South Korea. However in recent years, these prejudices are wearing off and things are getting better but it still has a long way to go.”
Once settled in South Korea, she changed her name one final time – to Hyeonseo. It means the strength of the sun shining warmly.
And she would need that strength for the next stage in her life – as she set about single-handedly plotting her family’s escape from North Korea.
“On the other side of the water Hyesan seemed lifeless, a city dug from rock, or an intricate cemetery. A place of ghosts and wild dogs. I felt no nostalgia for it. Only defiance. I dare you not to give me my mother.”
Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl With Seven Names
Eleven years, nine months and nine days after she had last seen her, Hyeonseo waited for her mother and brother to cross the Yalu River in the middle of the night.
But that was just the beginning of their journey. They had to cross eight Chinese provinces without getting caught in order to make it to Laos, where they could seek asylum with the South Korean embassy.
“We just want to cross their land. We are not doing it for free, we are paying for taxis, hotels, restaurants. But all they want to do is catch North Korean defectors. Why do we have to suffer so much because of our regime?” she asks.
For the last leg of the journey out of China, Hyeonseo was once again separated from her family. It was unsafe for her to cross with them in case she was mistaken for a broker and arrested.
But as they crossed the border, her mother and brother were caught. They were sent to a prison in Laos.
My duty now is to raise awareness and engage the international community against human rights abuses in North Korea
“The jail was pathetic …. It was unfit for humans and animals. And my family was in there. I wanted to get them out as quickly as possible.”
But it wouldn’t be easy.
“I was desperate, frustrated and exhausted by so much corruption,” she remembers. “My family was imprisoned with murderers. The prison guards were actually gangs.”
After nine months, Hyeonseo was eventually reunited with her family in South Korea.
Looking back on that time now, one particular moment stands out for her. It was the time she was helped by a complete stranger; an Australian travelling in Laos who helped her pay some fines to the Laotian government as well as giving her money for her expenses.
It taught her one thing, she says: charity.
“My duty now is to raise awareness and engage the international community against human rights abuses in North Korea,” she says.
“I believe in my life … there will be unification. Then, the North Koreans are going to ask me: ‘while we were suffering under the dictators, what did you do for us as a free North Korean defector living in a free country?'”
“I need to answer them and not feel embarrassed,” she reflects. “I hope to hold my head high and proudly say I fought for them. That is why every single day, I am doing my best.”
This article first appeared in the Al Jazeera Magazine.