Escaping North Korea: one refugee’s story

Yeonmi Park talks to Al Jazeera about her life inside North Korea, and her traumatic escape to China and beyond.

Yeonmi Park at One World Young Leaders summit in Dublin [Unspecified]

Yeonmi Park was 13 when she escaped North Korea with her mother after her father, a high-ranking member of the ruling Workers’ Party, was jailed by the regime over charges of illegal business with the Chinese.

He world changed from running from a despotic regime to scraping a meal a day, avoiding kidnap by human-traffickers and evading forced repatriation by Chinese authorities. 

Al Jazeera spoke to Park, now 20, at the One Young World summit in Dublin for a rare glimpse into life in North Korea, stirrings among the youth, and her traumatic escape to China.

Al Jazeera: You have been campaigning to stop China repatriating North Korean refugees. Tell us why.

Yeonmi Park: People who escape are desperate people. They are desperate for food, shelter, for a life. China catches them and repatriates them even though they know they will be killed.

Many of those who stay back are taken advantage of. They are often sold as slaves. There is a huge problem of human trafficking.

There are about 300,000 North Korean refugees in China. Lots of human traffickers kidnap and sell them as slaves, even young girls. They are treated as animals and sold for $200. This happened to me as well when I reached China.

When I arrived with my mother, a broker caught us. He wanted to sell me. I was 13. He told my mother, “I take girls who are 11, 12, 13 – is not a problem.” My mother protested and said I was a young child. The man raped her in front of me. I was only 13. Then we tried everything possible to escape China [for Mongolia].

AJ: What was it like growing up in North Korea?

YP: In the west, people see movies like Titanic. They love these movies but people in North Korea have no idea about them. They only think and talk about their regime and their leader. They have only one TV channel and no internet.

I never thought of saying or even thinking anything against the regime. We thought, “Our leader loves us. He is trying to protect us from the Americans, the evil country”. That was my world in North Korea: to think about how to hate Americans and praise our leader every day, 24 hours a day.

AJ: Tell us about your generation.

YP: I did not know the word “internet”, actually. I didn’t know social media at all. If you don’t know about it, how can you dream about it? There was little food. All you could think about is what you were going to eat tomorrow. It’s a luxury to think about computers.

In North Korea, the government tells you what to wear, what to see, what to say what to watch, what to study, what to do. Everything. It decides what job you have. You want to be a doctor? The government decides. And if your father is in the party, you can go to college but if he is a farmer, you cannot.

AJ: Do you think the society is changing? How much is the outside world changing the way people think and live there?

YP: My friend’s mother was killed because she saw a Hollywood film! People risk their lives to watch a movie. People do feel desire to be free. People in North Korea cannot even dance or sing, how ridiculous is that? Freedom of movement and freedom of speech – people do want that. We need that desire for freedom.

My mother’s generation thought they suffered but at the same time they would sacrifice anything for the regime. They were very loyal. My generation is slowly beginning to know the truth. We are obeying because we are scared of death. North Korea is changing from the bottom and it is getting harder for the government.

AJ: What are the factors that are contributing to the change?

YP: The young people want to be free. This generation is what I call the ‘Black Market Generation’, someone who is born in 1990s and 2000s who are selling and buying pirated film and music. My generation is slowly getting exposed to the outside world and thinking for themselves. But at the same time my generation never got a proper education so they still suffer.

AJ: You said want to return to North Korea someday. How would it need to change for that to happen?

YP: I want to see a free Korea where there is no North and no South. There is no East and West Germany anymore … So that people don’t ask me which part I am from – North or South? I want to say I am from Korea. I am a Korean.

AJ: What do you think about Kim Jong Un?

YP: He is a criminal. He is killing people there. After he got the power, he killed 80 people in one day for watching a movie or reading the Bible. This young man is so cruel. He ordered that people who attempt escape should be shot.

Follow Priyanka Gupta on Twitter @priyankagIND