Yeonmi Park made a har­row­ing es­cape from the North Korean dic­ta­tor state – straight into a sex traf­fick­ing hell. Fi­nally liv­ing freely in South Korea, she tells her story

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - FRONT PAGE - Words ABI­GAIL PESTA

AS A CHILD in North Korea, the most iso­lated na­tion on the planet, Yeonmi Park, 22, knew noth­ing of the out­side world. She learned only what her teach­ers taught: Amer­i­cans were en­e­mies and ‘bas­tards’. At times, she and her class­mates punched and kicked dum­mies dressed as US sol­diers. Food and elec­tric­ity were scarce. For­eign lms, il­le­gal. Yeonmi’s fa­ther spent years in a labour camp for start­ing a busi­ness, which was not al­lowed by the gov­ern­ment. When he got out, his bones pro­trud­ing from hunger, the fam­ily de­cided to es­cape across the border to China. In 2007, with the help of smug­glers, her older sis­ter ed rst, fol­lowed by Yeonmi and her mother, with her fa­ther due to come later. That’s when their real prob­lems be­gan. She speaks to Marie Claire about the fam­ily’s or­deal.

When you and your mother got to China, you re­alised your smug­glers were sex traf­fick­ers. Why had you trusted them?

In North Korea, we never learned to think crit­i­cally. There is no con­cept of in­di­vid­u­al­ism. The gov­ern­ment treated us as less valu­able than an­i­mals. You can’t even stay overnight at some­one’s house with­out per­mis­sion from the po­lice. My mother warned me not to say – or even think – any­thing bad about our ‘dear leader’, Kim Jong-il, be­cause ‘even the birds and mice can hear you whis­per’.

You were 13 at the time, and the traf­fick­ers said they wanted to rape you. Your mother said to rape her in­stead.

She was raped two times that night. The rst time, I heard only the sounds. The sec­ond time was in front of me. I told my­self I did not see that. That’s how I could carry on with life. It’s a sur­vivor trick.

How did it feel to hear you and your mother would be sold to 'hus­bands'?

I thought, you can’t buy peo­ple for money but at that mo­ment, I re­alised, wow, you can be bought and sold. They were ne­go­ti­at­ing prices in front of us. It felt heavy, crush­ing. My mother and I were sep­a­rated and sold to dif­fer­ent men.

You were sold to a man who tried to rape you. You fought him off, kick­ing and scream­ing. Where did you get that spirit?

I don’t know where that power came from. I was a small kid. We have a strength that we don’t know.

He said he would help you track down your fam­ily, and you stopped fight­ing his sex­ual ad­vances.

Yes, I sensed some sin­cer­ity in him, even though I fan­ta­sized about killing him. e did end up help­ing me nd my par­ents and, af­ter my fa­ther’s death, he let me and my mother go.

When your fa­ther died in 2008, you had to bury his ashes in se­cret be­cause you were all un­doc­u­mented and faced de­por­ta­tion.

That was the loneli­est night. He had been through so much pain. When I saw him af­ter he left the labour camp, his voice was so op­pressed. He couldn’t look into peo­ple’s eyes. He was so used to that – in prison, he wasn’t al­lowed to look at the guards. He wasn’t con­sid­ered a per­son. He looked so bony. He was so sick, he had to be care­ful with what he ate be­cause he hadn’t eaten any in­gre­di­ents like spice or oil when he was im­pris­oned.


My mom was cry­ing. But at that point, I didn’t know how to be an­gry. I didn’t know how to think for my­self. Ev­ery­thing has to be taught – com­pas­sion, anger.

You heard Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies could help you get to free­dom in South Korea through Mon­go­lia. In 2009, you and your mother made it. the free world look like?

Shiny The air­port was shin­ing. The oor was shin­ing. I saw girls in miniskirts, high heels, leather jack­ets. Their hair was dyed. It was a dif­fer­ent planet. There were ow­ers and trees. In North Korea, there is no colour. You can feel

that op­pres­sion, that mis­ery. I re­mem­ber be­ing sur­prised when I saw trash cans in South Korea – peo­ple ac­tu­ally had garbage to throw away. In North Korea, we were so poor, we reused ev­ery­thing. We didn’t throw any­thing away. If we used wa­ter to wash rice, we kept it. We used it to feed an­i­mals or some­times we washed our faces with it. We didn’t have skin lo­tion or any­thing like that.

What was it like to come across Amer­i­can ‘bas­tards’ for the first­time thatyear?

I was very anx­ious. I didn’t know what to ex­pect. But when I saw them, I could see the truth. We were taught that they have cold blood, cold skin. Later, when my mother met my Amer­i­can co-au­thor, Maryanne Vollers, she said, ‘She’s warm!’

In 2013, your sis­ter found her way to South Korea. How did it feel to see her?

She was so small. She hadn’t grown at all due to mal­nu­tri­tion and ne­glect. I grew, but she stopped. I thought, that beau­ti­ful girl, what did the world do to her? It takes a long time to re­cover. She’s in the process.

Your mother even­tu­ally went to re­trieve your fa­ther's ashes from China.

Yes, she brought him home. He’s with us now in our room. He es­caped North Korea too.

When you be­gan to speak pub­licly about your ex­pe­ri­ence, the state-run me­dia in North Korea re­leased omi­nous video call­ing you a 'poi­sonous mush­room that grew from a pile of hu­man waste'.

That was the rst time I ques­tioned if I should do this. I wor­ried about my rel­a­tives in North Korea. But I can­not stop. Peo­ple are so iso­lated there, they don’t even know they’re iso­lated. They don’t know the words for ‘hu­man rights’. I be­lieve North Korea will be free in our life­time. Noth­ing is for­ever.

How does it feel to wake up free ev­ery­day in South Korea

Free­dom is not uite nat­u­ral to me. Peo­ple ask for my opin­ion, and I think, why does it mat­ter? Or they ask my favourite food or colour. I don’t know my favourite food, but my favourite colour is spring green.

Three-year-old Yeonmi ( front left) with her fam­ily in Hye­san, North Korea, in 1996

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