‘I ESCAPED NORTH KOREA INTO A SEX TRAFFICKING HELL’
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
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.
'IN NORTH KOREA THERE IS NO COLOUR'
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