READ NOW EXTRACT FROM IN ORDER TO LIVE
On a cold night in 2007, when Yeonmi was 13, her mother paid a smuggler to get the two of them across the North Korean border into China, where they were hoping to be reunited with her sister.
‘THE YOUNG NORTH Korean smuggler who was guiding us across the border insisted we had to go that night. He had paid some guards to look the other way, but he couldn’t bribe all the soldiers in the area, so we had to be extremely cautious. I followed him in the darkness, but I was so unsteady that I had to scoot down the bank on my bottom, sending small avalanches of rocks crashing ahead of me. He turned and whispered angrily for me to stop making so much noise.
But it was too late. We could see the silhouette of a North Korean soldier climbing up from the riverbed. If this was one of the bribed border guards, he didn’t seem to recognize us. “Go back!” the soldier shouted. “Get out of here!” Our guide scrambled down to meet him and we could hear them talking in hushed voices. Our guide returned alone. “Let’s go,” he said. “Hurry!” It was early spring, and the weather was getting warmer, melting patches of the frozen river. The place where we crossed was steep and narrow, protected from the sun during the day so it was still solid enough to hold our weight — we hoped. Our guide made a cell phone call to someone on the other side, the Chinese side, and then whispered, “Run!”
The guide started running, but my feet would not move and I clung to my mother. I was so scared that I was completely paralyzed. The guide ran back for us, grabbed my hands, and dragged me across the ice. When we reached solid ground, we started running and didn’t stop until we were out of sight of the border guards.
The riverbank was dark, but the lights of Chaingbai, China, glowed just ahead of us. I turned to take a quick glance back at the place where I was born. The electric power grid was down, as usual, and all I could see was a black, lifeless horizon. I felt my heart pounding out of my chest as we arrived at a small shack on the edge of some at, vacant elds.
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 — from starvation, from disease, from the inhuman conditions of a prison labor camp. The hunger had become unbearable; I was willing to risk my life for the promise of a bowl of rice.
But there was more to our journey than our own survival. My mother and I were searching for my older sister, Eunmi, who had left for China a few days earlier and had not been heard from since. We hoped that she would be there waiting for us when we crossed the river. Instead the only person to greet us was a bald, middle-aged Chinese man, an ethnic North Korean like many of the people living in this border area. The man said something to my mother, and then led her around the side of the building. From where I waited I could hear my mother pleading, “Aniyo! Aniyo!” “No! No!” I knew then that something was terribly wrong.We had come to a bad place, maybe even worse than the one we had left.’ Extracted from In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park (R285, Fig Tree)