In In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, Yeonmi Park simply and starkly relates her struggle, and the struggles of her family, to just survive under the brutal North Korean regime and in their subsequent escape to China. She does not sugarcoat or elide any part of her suffering—nor does she glorify it, use it as an excuse to discount or erase the suffering of others. Indeed, what strikes me so profoundly about this twenty-two-year-old, who has been through more in her life than I’ll probably ever experience in mine, is the depth of her empathy and her compassion for her fellow humans. Despite growing up in a culturally stagnant and deprived society only to escape into more hardship and oppression, Park has managed not just to survive but to blossom and flourish, to become a symbol for hope and a voice against oppression. And while she shares her ambivalence over this latter turn of events, she shows us how it’s possible—perhaps even necessary—to take on such a role while retaining one’s own goals and personal ambitions.
This is a coming of age story like you’ve never seen, and you better buckle up your seatbelts, because this shit gets real. It’s a very emotional read, and I found myself on the verge of tears every couple of pages; I was crying as I finished it, and not just because of Park’s anguish—but from her incredible resilience as well.
There is so much in this book to talk about, so many things I learned or want to remember. I’ll mention but a few. Let’s break it down.
Life in North Korea
I didn’t learn much about North Korea in school. I knew it as a distinct country from South Korea, communist where the South was democratic, and isolated. I knew there had been a war, one in which Canada was, to some extent, involved. More recently, of course, North Korea has been in the news for its nuclear arms program and its posturing. So most of us know of North Korea as a political entity, and maybe we have a vague notion of what life is like for North Koreans—most live in poverty, have no access to computers or the Internet, and are raised on propaganda where Kim Il Sung and his progeny are all-powerful benefactors.
Park’s simple prose is eye-opening in describing how people in North Korea actually live (or, in some cases, fail to live). Her family, based in a town bordering China far from the more stable capital city, alternates between prosperity and poverty as their father’s criminal enterprises grow and then collapse. Park explains how, for all but the most privileged families, life in North Korea is like something from medieval Europe. Forget about computers and electricity—the former non-existent outside of a few places, the latter so unreliable and unpredictable that when it’s on everyone stops what they’re doing simply to enjoy using it briefly.
This is a country fully committed to realizing the end state of a corrupt communist regime imploding on itself. Park explains how the government once provided everyone with a job, housing, and food—and now it doesn’t. It can’t. The infrastructure of the country is so broken that it can’t transport fertilizer properly, so schoolchildren and adults alike have to save their own poop to use as manure. Park explains this with no trace of humour, and I wanted to laugh at how absurd it seems to us.
At least in other places that experience abject poverty, people know of and aspire to something better. Not so here. Although I was surprised to learn about the burgeoning trade of smuggling bootleg DVDs out of China—Park mentions how she watched South Korean and Chinese movies and soap operas—even this act of rebellion does little to counter the programming North Koreans receive in school and society at large. It’s one thing to know about the use of propaganda and another to hear it described and explained in the words of someone who experienced it from birth. From the way she was taught arithmetic—how many American bastards you’ve killed—to people’s cognitive dissonance regarding their own poverty despite the idea that the Kims are beneficent and omnipotent—Park helps us to understand how life in North Korea continues like this.
Early on, Park gives a brief history of how North Korea came to be after World War II. And of course, it’s another story of a country suffering from the Russian and American superpowers staking out their territory. Let’s just draw a line down the middle: communists in the north, democrats in the south! What could possibly go wrong?
It’s bizarre to think a country like North Korea could continue to exist as it does. And while I’m not one to advocate invading a foreign country to “liberate” its people, I think there are probably more proactive steps that we outsiders could be taking to end the North Korean regime and isolation more quickly—and less violently. But first we need to understand what makes North Korea unique, and why people like Yeonmi Park go through so much to escape.
I recently made the not-entirely-facetious comparison between Soviet gulags of the 1940s with the American prison system of today. But when Park says that North Korea is like one big prison camp, I understand why she is not joking.
Fight and Flight for Freedom
In many ways, Park’s story of her harrowing escape from North Korea and secret migration through China and Mongolia to South Korea is the most conventional, least surprising part of this book. Sadly, it doesn’t shock me that there are people out there who take advantage of desperate refugees and traffic them, selling them as slaves into marriage, to brothels, etc.
Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the entire process, and by the emotional toll it takes on Park and her mother. She reaches a point where she is determined to die rather than be raped or captured and returned to North Korea … and I believed her. When they decide to run from China and try for South Korea, their conduit is through missionaries who insist they study the Bible and profess Christianity. Park shares her mixed feelings about believing in a higher power that could let North Korea continue the way it does. And she talks about how some of the pastors make her feel so ashamed and “sinful” for working as a cam girl to subsist. It’s heartbreaking that her first exposures to ideas about sex and sexuality came in this way—and then that the very people so generous and kind to help her and her mother escape also condemn what they did to survive.
When relating her life in North Korea, Park is sometimes dismissive of the hardships she and her family experienced. Compared to what other families were going through, she feels that her family was often better off—even when they didn’t have enough food to eat well, or when she and her sister nearly froze to death while her mother was in Pyongyang trying to get their father out of prison. Park displays incredible empathy and compassion even when reliving her own struggles. And she does this with the section on China as well. She does not mince words when describing Hongwei, the human trafficker who purchases Park and her mother and sells the latter while trying to get Park to live as his mistress. Yet she also displays a sympathy for Hongwei’s life and choices. While not apologizing for him, she says she can understand what drove him to this career. She is not obligated to say this; she could, and maybe in all rights should be angry at and disgusted by Hongwei. But even with all her negative experiences, Park is able to show the complex and contradictory nature of humanity.
Learning How to Live Again
If this were fiction, In Order to Live might end with Park and her mother arriving in South Korea, getting a hero’s welcome, and settling down to a new life of freedom, justice, and the South Korean way. Maybe she would meet a shy, unassuming boy.
But the problem with real life is it doesn’t hand us those kind of tidy endings.
Park and her mother finally make it to South Korea. First they face interrogation—to weed out spies, sure, fair enough. But adjusting to life in South Korea proves far more complicated than they expected. Park explains how they had trouble acclimating to living on their own after spending so long in a society where individuality was punished. She makes it clear that while South Korea officially welcomes North Korean refugees, the attitude of its people can sometimes be indifferent or hostile towards individual North Koreans. And the atmosphere of excellence that pushes South Korean students to succeed creates a supercilious view that North Korean defectors can seldom catch up. Park found herself in a new “home” that was wary of her, had no idea what she had been through, and had no confidence in her ability to learn or contribute to society.
Once again, Park details the hard choices she made. She reluctantly agreed to join the cast of an entertainment series starring defectors, because she thought the exposure might help her find her sister. Although the show’s intentions were benign, Park found herself and her mother exaggerating their stories of their lives and saying what they thought would play well with audiences. I can imagine few things worse for an uncertain teenage girl trying to fit into a new society than being forced not only to relive her past but retell it in new, interesting ways for the entertainment of the masses.
I also liked hearing about Park’s trip to the United States and Costa Rica, and her realization that other people in the world suffer as much as people in North Korea. She confesses her own self-centred and very narrow view of the world, reminding us in the process that we all have biases and blinders. And finally, she shares her evolving perspective on her fame and notoriety, and its role in galvanizing her to write this book. I can understand her ambivalence. On one side, she has North Korea denouncing her, targeting her, pressuring her family back in the country to make up lies or face the consequences. On the other side, she has people trying to take advantage of her, twist her message, or insist that she is lying or making things up.
I admit that when I first started reading I felt a twinge of cynicism. What good sceptic wouldn’t? But that also speaks to the low standard in our mass media: so much of what we see is managed, staged, or massaged to present certain perspectives. While In Order to Live certainly evokes pathos for Yeomi Park, it does not strike me as having an agenda. The prose is simple and easy to follow. She talks about the good and the bad times in North Korea, acknowledging the human drive to find the light within the darkness. She shares a journey that is complex and perhaps incredible—because often the truth is stranger than fiction.
Above all else, Park reminds us that refugees are people. Recently there has been much debate about plans to take in thousands of Syrian refugees, and media portrayals and discussions of these refugees often forget that simple fact. Park is a refugee, a defector, a victim, yes—but she is also a survivor, a young woman, a scholar, an advocate, and an activist. She is, like everyone else, so many different things; she defies a single, simple label. It behoves us to recognize this and remember it when considering others who have experienced comparable struggles surviving and escaping from untenable situations.
I remain moved and inspired by In Order to Live. It is without question one of the best books, if not the best book, I have read this year. Yeomi Park teaches us about North Korea, makes us aware of the depths of its wrongness, and at the same time sheds light on the amazing lengths to which people will go to obtain freedom. That’s a word that many people like to use fairly liberally, and it’s worthwhile reflecting on what it actually means to us. Park cautions us that not only do some people lack freedom, but they might not even have a proper understanding of its meaning or its possibility.