By James Moules
FEW nations attract so much morbid fascination as North Korea.
Media coverage of the country frequently focuses on the exploits and eccentricities of the ruling Kim dynasty – often on the basis of hearsay. Other times, North Korea is the nation of scare stories, with threats of nuclear armageddon rolled out on a semi-regular basis.
But what Yeonmi Park offers in her book ‘In Order to Live’ is a side we hear considerably less often – that of the desolation and dejection of the average citizen living under the world’s most repressive regime.
Park was born in 1993 and grew up in North Korea under the rule of Kim Jong-il – and at a time of enormous hardship for the nation. During the 1990s, the country was torn by a terrible famine that led to the deaths of at least hundreds of thousands.
Released in 2015, her book chronicles her story in three parts – her formative years in North Korea, her escape through China and Mongolia, and the beginnings of her new life in South Korea.
Her account of the early years of her life detail the fanatical indoctrination that all North Koreans are subject to and gives a chilling look at the sheer scale of control that the state has over even the tiniest detail of every one of its citizens lives.
Mouthing even the slightest criticism of the “Dear Leader” can land you in trouble – and cast you and your family into a desperate situation.
Park weaves a summary of North Korean society into this first part of her memoir, including a description of songbun, the system of three tiers that defines a family’s status and life chances based on perceived trustworthiness and loyalty to the state.
After her father fell foul of the regime and ended up in prison, her family made her escape. Yeonmi, who was a mere 13 years old, went accompained with her mother, while her sister Eunmi and her father left at different times.
They fled north into China, where they were promptly sold into slavery and repeatedly subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of their captors. Her father later managed to join them, but died soon after of an undetected cancer. They had no word of what had happened to her sister.
China is not a safe place for North Korean refugees. Anyone caught by the Chinese authorities risks being sent back to North Korea, and to almost certain execution.
Yeonmi vividly describes this constant state of fear, bringing a tangible immediacy to the day by day struggle to stay safe and secure. They would always be at the mercy of their Chinese overlords.
Eventually, through the help of Christian missionaries, Yeonmi and her mother took a perilous journey across the border into Mongolia where they could make contact with the South Korean authorities. From there, they could find true safety and a new life.
But even once she made it to South Korea, her life would not be straightforward. While the threat to her life was no longer so immediate, she would still be met with hostility from some. She also struggled to adapt to the new culture, having been raised in such a rigid totalitarian regime as the North.
Her story would bring good fortune in the end, however. After being separated for years, she was eventually reunited with her sister, who also found her way to safety in the South. And despite losing years of formal education during her slavery in China, she would go on to earn a place at college in South Korea.
‘In Order to Live’ offers a gripping account of Yeonmi’s escape from North Korea and the struggle and suffering she endured to get to freedom. It also serves as an excellent primer on the North Korean system to anyone who has only an observer’s knowledge of the country.
In the book’s prologue, she remarks: “This is the story of the choices I made in order to live.”
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