Escape from North Korea

Jonathan LaTrace, Reporter

Yeon-mi Park escaped from North Korea in 2007, and she has quite the story of her life in North Korea. Yeon-mi Park was born in 1993, in Hyesan in North Korea. Her father worked as a civil servant, working at the town hall of Hyesan, as a part of the Ruling Workers Party, whereas her mother worked as a nurse for the North Korean army. She also has an older sister named Eunmi. She was born during the great famine and during the rule of Kim Jong II. During Kim Jong II’s rule, citizens had to follow rules, such as attending executions. Her mother had told Yeon-mi a great amount of times, to never speak out or do anything against the North Korean government. She thought nothing of this, she was young and just thought they were killing evil people, because they went against the government. This changed one day, when Yeon-mi was invited to see one of her mother’s friends executed, for watching films from South Korea, and having friends borrow them.

The Great Famine claimed 2.5 million lives, and in the book “Nothing to Envy” written by Barbara Demick, showed that citizens that were too pure or too innocent would be the ones to die the fastest during this famine. Yeon-mi’s father kept his family safe and healthy during the famine through an illegal method, by selling gold, silver, and nickel to people across to border into China. This may have kept them all safe, but Yeon-mi knew something was very wrong in North Korea. She saw corpses everywhere. In the railway station, bodies on the ground, bodies up against the walls. Yeon-mi even saw dead bodies in the rivers, saying that she knew they were trying to escape, and knowing full well that they didn’t succeed. Sadly, due to Yeon-mi’s father keeping them healthy through illegal trade, her father was sentenced to 17 years at Kwan-Li-So, a labor camp in North Korea. After this incident, Yeon-mi’s childhood was damaged when they heard of this.

Yeon-mi’s father was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2005, while in Kwan-Li-So, and bribed his way out of the labor camp to get treatment. When he returned to his family, they began planning to escape past the North Korean border into China; However, Yeon-mi’s older sister, Eunmi had already left to escape to China early, without telling her family. They were able to make it into China with the help of brokers, on the night of March 30, 2007. Contrary to what they initially thought, the living conditions of China were just as bad as in North Korea. Their shelter was in terrible condition and couldn’t even afford running water. To make matters worse, in January 2008, her father died at age 45, from exposure and colon cancer.

Yeon-mi and her mother then made their way to Mongolia, to seek safe entry into South Korea. However, upon attempting to enter, they were caught by border guards threatening to send them back to China. That was when they both attempted to kill themselves, a quick death would be a better than to suffer a longer period of pain. These actions influenced the border guards to let them in, but to a detention center in the capital of Mongolia. Not too long after, on April 1, 2009, both Yeon-mi and her mother were sent to the airport at the capital of Mongolia, Ulan Bator to get to Seoul.

They had succeeded, and they had risked their lives to escape North Korea. A few years later, in 2014, Yeon-mi was reunited with her sister, Eunmi. Yeon-mi Park has since then become an activist for human rights in North Korea. She has traveled to many different places around the world, telling of her story, telling people what they can do to make things better for the North Korean people. Yeon-mi Park’s journey to assist the North Korean people has just begun, and even she knows there is a long road ahead.