Park Yeon-mi (Korean: 박연미, English: Yeonmi Park) was born in North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom, in 1993. In Order To Live is her memoir, an astonishing true story of physical and mental endurance, detailing how she escaped the world’s most impenetrable and fearful dictatorship. It was written with the assistance of Maryanne Vollers, and published in 2015.
In Order To Live is told in three parts, tracing Park’s journey to freedom. It begins in Hyesan, where Park was born and raised, and it was normal to go weeks or months at a time without electricity. The Park family had just a tiny fireplace to cook and keep themselves “warm” throughout the icy North Korean winters. Park’s childhood was punctuated by “tiny tastes of freedom”, like the time she watched a black-market bootleg copy of Titanic (Western media being banned by the regime), and the first time she earned her own money (bribing an orchard security guard to steal fruit to sell at a local grey-market).
Park’s parents had little choice but to build careers in black-market trading during North Korea’s economic collapse of the 1990s. They smuggled Chinese cigarettes, clothes, metals, and anything else that could fetch a price. Their income fluctuated; at times, they were wealthy by North Korean standards, but at others they struggled to feed themselves. By the time Park and her mother got the chance to escape, they were – literally – starving (her father having been caught and imprisoned in a labour camp for years).
The second part of In Order To Live begins at this point, in 2007 when Park was 13 years old. She and her mother were smuggled across the border into China by people they later discovered were human traffickers (rather than benevolent Samaritans). According to Park, there is still a thriving economy for “wives” (read: slaves) in China, and she and her mother were traded like chattel. They searched in vain for Park’s sister, who had gone ahead of them to China and left no word as to her eventual whereabouts. For the Parks, “escape” from North Korea was a sickening case of out of the frying pan and into the fire – but at least, in China, they had enough to eat.
The third part of In Order To Live focuses on Park’s final bid for true freedom, a journey planned and aided by missionaries. Park, her mother, and other North Korean refugees in China made their way across the Gobi Desert on foot, coming to Mongolia where they could apply for asylum in South Korea. Park arrived in South Korea traumatised, and with only a second-grade education. While the South Korean government provided refugees with basic living assistance, she still faced an uphill battle to live a full and healthy life.
Against the odds, Park has gone on to become an advocate for human rights and support for victims of human trafficking; In Order To Live, and sharing her story, has become a platform to draw attention to the horrors that take place away from the media spotlight. Above and beyond what Park sacrificed to make it to freedom, she faces execution as a “defector” (one with a very public face, no less) if she ever returns to her homeland. Her former friends, neighbours, and distant relatives have all faced consequences to her speaking out.
As far as the memoir itself goes, the prose is sparse, simple – it’s not a literary memoir, but I think that actually works in its favour. It feels more authentic, allowing Park’s story to stand for itself. Plus, it gives the reader the opportunity to connect a lot of the broader dots for themselves. Park’s personal history is inextricably political; so much of her fate has been determined by the prevailing winds of economically powerful countries thousands of miles away. It’s a powerful reminder of the voiceless cost of large-scale war games.
Naturally, Park has been subject to a lot of gotcha journalism, exposing supposed “inconsistencies” in her story of escape – but show me a memoir writer who hasn’t, really. As best I can tell, all of the “exposed” holes and gaps are attributable to (or, at the very least, exacerbated by) language barriers, and Park’s obligation to obscure parts of her story in an effort to prevent retaliation by the regime.
Of more pressing concern are the troubling views Park has expressed since publication of In Order To Live (criticism of universities for guiding students in the use of gender-neutral pronouns, for instance). I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt, and hope that her statements are taken out of context and cannot be neatly separated from her childhood indoctrination. Still, it’s enough to make me grit my teeth.
The final message of In Order To Live, the one that really hit home for me, came from the Acknowledgements: “caring is how we begin to change the world”. Caring about the thousands (tens of thousands? we’ll never know for sure) who have died in their bids for freedom from the North Korean dictatorship is the first step in ensuring that no one else has to suffer in order to live. All told, this memoir is a moving, compelling must-read – the perfect pick for fans of Educated!