New York: Penguin Books, 2016.
273 pp. $17 (paperback).
Yeonmi Park was still recovering from surgery, an unnecessary appendectomy due to a misdiagnosis, when she and her mother crossed a frozen river to reach China. The river was monitored by North Korean guards. This chilling scene—which captures the desperation of Yeonmi’s escape—is the opening to her autobiography, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom. Her journey from North Korea to China, and then to South Korea by way of Mongolia, took more than two years. At the start, she did not yet have the concept of freedom: “I wasn’t dreaming of freedom when I escaped from North Korea. I didn’t even know what it meant to be free. All I knew was that if my family stayed behind, we would probably die” (2–3). The book often reads like a mystery, with Yeonmi as the detective discovering the truth about the world around her. Her account is an intellectual journey as well as an escape story.
Yeonmi provides historical context that serves as valuable background to her own experiences. She explains that China and the Soviet Union had provided North Korea with various kinds of support, but in the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, both countries reduced their support. The centralized economy in North Korea collapsed, and in 1994 famine started to plague parts of the country.
To raise more money so that his family could eat, Yeonmi’s father traded on the black market; for this he was arrested and imprisoned. In 2002 and 2003, Yeonmi’s mother left for several weeks at a time to visit him in prison in Pyongyang. Left on their own, Yeonmi and her sister faced starvation. At times, to survive she ate dragonflies and cicadas. “In North Korea, spring is the season of death,” she writes. “It is the time of year when our stores of food are gone, but the farms produce nothing to eat because new crops are just being planted” (79).
Yeonmi’s father bribed his way out of prison in 2005. By 2007, the Parks were looking for a way to get to China. Ever since childhood, Yeonmi was enraptured by the lights that emanated from the Chinese city of Chaingbai, just across the river from her home. China was now irresistible: “It was like being drawn to a flame without thinking about why” (106). Her sister was the first in her family to leave for China, but she went missing for several years. When Yeonmi and her mother were offered the chance to go, Yeonmi insisted that they accept.
They did not fully realize what the arrangement involved. In China, they faced a traumatic experience. She writes, “We had come to a bad place, maybe even worse than the one we had left” (3). Upon their arrival, Yeonmi’s mother was raped by one of the brokers who had arranged their escape. Then Yeonmi and her mother were sold into marriages through a human trafficking chain. Yeonmi tried to escape this new horrific situation, but those who offered to help her tried to sell her, too. Then her “owner” tracked her down. Yeonmi became nearly suicidal. At age thirteen, she constantly had to fend off those who wanted to “own” or rape her. If she was found by Chinese authorities, she would be sent back to North Korea, where defection is considered a serious crime, punishable by execution. She made a deal to stay and sleep with her “owner” in exchange for safety and the opportunity to be reunited with her family. Sometime later, her mother learned of an alternative in another city: They could be paid as online chat room companions. This was less awful than the terrible situation they were currently in, so Yeonmi and her mother took the jobs.
Yeonmi’s shocking story illustrates how collectivism and statism destroy human lives. The family left one communist country to go right into another, and both countries lacked governments that recognize and protect individual rights—rights necessary for human beings to live as human beings.
Her will to live fueled her flight from North Korea, and later from China. Two years after they arrived in China, she and her mother (led by a Christian mission) crossed the Gobi Desert in a harrowing escape to Mongolia. Finally, from Mongolia, they were made their way into South Korea.
One telling insight into Yeonmi’s character is what she chose to focus on once she was free in South Korea: She sought an education. Her initial test scores were on par with those of eight-year-olds in South Korea, but she rapidly progressed through junior high and high school levels. At one point, she dropped out of school but continued her education on her own: “I inhaled books like other people breathe oxygen. I didn’t just read for knowledge or pleasure; I read to live” (229). Her reading list was ambitious and included George Orwell, Shakespeare, and a biography of Abraham Lincoln. Orwell’s works had special meaning for her: Yeonmi saw her father as a Winston Smith, a character in Orwell’s 1984 who saw beyond the propaganda. She recounts how North Koreans could hold contradictions the same way that characters in 1984 engaged in “doublethink”: “One is what you are taught to believe; the other is what you see with your own eyes” (53). Yeonmi also saw similarities between Orwell’s Animal Farm and North Korea. She reflected that she had been akin to the story’s “‘new pigs’ with no ideas” (231). Through reading, however, she was beginning to gain the tools she needed for noncontradictory thinking and independent living.
Adjusting to life in South Korea was not easy for Yeonmi; learning to think for herself was a difficult process. At the beginning, she couldn’t even tell her teacher and classmates what her hobbies were or what her favorite color was. She mimicked the teacher’s choice, saying that her favorite color was pink, as if that were “the ‘right’ answer” (216).
Though she doesn’t mention Anthem and may never have heard of Ayn Rand, Yeonmi’s observations show that life in North Korea closely parallels life in the city of that novella. In Anthem, “I” is replaced by “we,” and men are prohibited from independent thought. Likewise, Yeonmi writes, “There was no ‘I’ in North Korea—only ‘we,’” and “You are taught to think with one mind” (216, 48). Other similarities are striking. In Anthem, it’s forbidden to speak of the earlier times; in North Korea, it’s forbidden to say “Seoul” (56). Like characters in Anthem, Yeonmi was constantly bombarded by state-run propaganda.
Yeonmi shows a profound understanding of the nature of dictatorship and of the North Korean regime and its use of propaganda. She refers to another North Korean defector, Jang Jin Sung, who called it an “emotional dictatorship” (48). Yeonmi elaborates: “They need to control you through your emotions, making you a slave to the state by destroying your individuality, and your ability to react to situations based on your own experience of the world. The dictatorship, both emotional and physical, is reinforced in every aspect of your life” (48).
In her book, Yeonmi notes that the police in both North Korea and China, instead of being stewards of justice, were some of the most grievous enemies of it. She writes:
In North Korea, the police were the ones who took your money and hauled you away to prison. In China, I froze in fear anytime I saw a uniform, because the police there would arrest me on the spot. Police officers had never protected me from anything in my life. But in South Korea, protection was their job description. (234)
Yeonmi decided to study criminal justice at Dongguk University in Seoul. She soon discovered that she was not strong enough to continue the physical training part of the program, so she decided to study law instead.1 In addition, Yeonmi became a political activist, giving interviews and telling her story to the media.
Although reading about Yeonmi’s life is painful at times, In Order to Live is a moving example of self-discovery. Yeonmi’s explanations of the thoughts and actions that led her to leave North Korea, to read voraciously and think independently, to study criminal justice, and to speak out against the North Korean regime are illuminating and inspiring. Anyone interested in the the nature of dictatorship, the virtue of justice, or the power of persistence will find this book an extraordinary value.