So I began my world tour of books in what can seem an odd choice: the closed dictatorship of North Korea. Finding an honest book from this country would be hard since all books published there must be approved by the state and most are filled with propaganda about how great the leader is and how North Korea is the best place on earth, which is very far from the truth.
That is why I have chosen a book that it not technically from NK, as it wasn’t written or published there, but instead a book written by the human rights activist and NK defector Yeonmi Park.
In her biography In Order to Live, Park recounts how it was to grow up under one of the most violent and authoritarian regimes in the world. For a short time in her life Park and her family had a decent standard of living. At least compared to most of the population of North Korea, where great poverty is the rule rather than the exception. But after her father was arrested for smuggling (something he had to do to take care of his family) and sent to an internment camp, her family faced great poverty and risked starvation. For a while the then eight year old Yeonmi and her eleven year old sister were left on their own while their mother worked to get their father out of the camp. During this time they would scavenge nearby mountains to find anything edible but still suffered from severe malnutrition.
Years later, after their family was finally back together, her sister disappeared after informing them that she would try and escape to China. Yeonmi and her mother went to try to find her, crossing the border at night with help from human traffickers. But once on the other side they were taken by the people who they thought were going to help them. The second part of the book is about their time in China, where they became victims of trafficking. What happened during that time was horrific as they both experienced frequent sexual abuse and were often seen as nothing more than merchandise. Yeonmi’s mother was at one point sold to be a man’s slave wife for a price equivalent of about 2100 US dollars.
At the same time they could not ask the Chinese authorities for help, as they were undocumented immigrants and would have been sent back to NK to face severe punishment and possibly execution.
The eventually found a way to escape to Mongolia by taking the dangerous journey through the Gobi Desert at night. They were then incarcerated and later flown to South Korea, where NK defectors are welcomed and helped to adapt to life in their new country.
Yeonmi and her mother were able to start a new life in SK and were even eventually reunited with Yeonmi’s sister. Yeonmi Park is today a human rights activist fighting to help bring awareness of the horrors the Kim dictators have brought on their own people. She is a woman of great bravery, especially since she is living under threat of retaliation from the North Korean government.
In Order to Live was a moving read about not only the oppression happening in North Korea but also about human bravery and strength in the face of what seems like impossible odds. I warmly recommend this biography of a remarkable woman.