Edited by Veronica Vivi
Illustration by Maia Walcott
“You have to tell the world that North Korea is like one big prison camp . . . If you don’t speak up for them, Yeonmi-ya, who will?” (Park 264). After her mother said these words, Yeonmi Park decided to put aside her insecurities, her fear and the shame she felt and to write about her life.
Yeonmi Park was born in North Korea in 1993. In Order to Live is her story, a memoir of her childhood in her home country and her escape from it in 2007. The book is divided into three sections, the three nations that have determined her life and through which the reader becomes a witness of Yeonmi’s situation. From living in the North Korean oppressive regime to becoming a victim of human trafficking in China to a new start in South Korea and the beginning of her activism, the author shows the cruelty of a world so distant from the privileged reader, at times almost inconceivable for our unaccustomed minds. With In Order to Live, Yeonmi Park uses her story to give notions of North Korea and to be a voice for North Korean people, talking about what it means to live there and what future awaits for those who escape or try to do so. The book is remarkably inspirational and it shows what a strong person Yeonmi Park is, but here I wanted to focus on other aspects of the book that I find equally significant.
As mentioned, In Order to Live wants to raise awareness about one of the most repressive countries in the world (HRW) and wants to speak up for the 25 million people who live there, but it is also a book that tells much more. Through Yeonmi Park’s descriptions and experiences, we can detect the mechanisms that have allowed the North Korean leaders to maintain their status of power and be worshipped like they were Gods. Reading Park’s story, it becomes clear that the North Korean government massively uses certain means to retain control. For instance, strong censorship and manipulation of knowledge. Yeonmi Park explains how the regime is concerned with stopping any information coming from foreign sources, which allows to shape people’s mind in the desired way. Within this intellectual isolation, the government is free to decide what and how to present facts and ideas, to determine who is the enemy, how to portray the rest of the world and even North Korea itself, constructing a vision of the world that will benefit those in power. In this way, propaganda is heavily used but it goes unnoticed since North Koreans do not have anything else tosh compare their knowledge with. “Instead of scary fairy tales, we had stories set in a filthy and disgusting place called South Korea, where homeless children went barefoot and begged in the streets. In never occurred to me until after I arrived in Seoul that those books were really describing life in North Korea. But we couldn’t see past the propaganda” (Park 46). Another means used is fear. North Koreans are being watched all the time: they cannot risk to say, or even think, something that goes against or challenge the regime, as they will be heard and reported. Not only people are not educated to think, they are also taught to not ask and not express opinions because talking is dangerous and, as Yeonmi’s mother said, “even when you think you’re alone, the birds and mice can hear you whisper” (Park 19).
Other methods used by the North Korean government emerge from the book. Throughout the pages, it is shown the strong emphasis that the regime put on these procedures, allowing the readers to think of them as immoral, perhaps even belonging to a more oppressive past, but it can also bring them to question the control that their society exercises over them. Living in a privileged country certainly gives us more freedom but it is still important to recognise the subtle ways in which certain ideologies and points of view make their way into our minds. For instance, Yeonmi Park explains that in North Korea people are taught that they live at the centre of the universe, which might sound extreme. However, if we take one of the leading countries in the world, such as the USA, we can see how its economic and political power allow it to really be at the centre, establishing its points of view as dominant and leaving others to follow and adjust accordingly. Yeonmi Park expresses this concept perfectly, “It’s not easy to give up a worldview that is built into your bones and imprinted on your brain like the sound of your own father’s voice” (Park 215). We are so used to see the world in a specific way that it is difficult to change perspective and deconstruct our knowledge. In this, by presenting such an extreme situation, the book helped me to notice that the same thing, even if carried on differently, happens everywhere.
There is also another reason why I find this book important: escaping from North Korea made of Yeonmi Park a migrant. In the second part of the book we read of her life in China, where she became a victim of human trafficking. Nowadays, migration is broadly discussed and migrants are treated as political and economic affairs, as objects before being treated as humans. This aspect emerges in the book while the reader has to walk side by side with the author, who directly experienced the pain, the difficulties and the dehumanisation that follow those who have to run away from their home. It is a powerful perspective on the matter, it makes room for empathy and highlights a problem which tends to be omitted in the news, the fact that people would not have to run away from home if it was a safe place.
Unfortunately, I did not come across this memoir during my studies, but I read it under my own initiative because I was looking for information about North Korea. This book is heart-breaking but necessary and it impressed me how much it can actually offer. It gives a view of North Korea from within, it is a story of hope which also wants to show how people are treated, while, at the same time, it can lead us to critical thinking and to question our own perspectives. Because of its nature, it can fit into different courses, as it can be analysed in Social Sciences, Politics, Psychology, History or researches focused on Human Rights, gender studies and migration. More generally, I believe it is a voice that should be heard by everyone, for the reader can broaden their perspective and enhance their empathy by learning of a reality of oppression and exploitation.
Human Rights Watch, North Korea. Available: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/north-korea
Park, Yeonmi. In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom. New York: Penguin Press, 2015.
About the author:
Giulia is a Sociology and Criminology student at the University of Stirling. She’s particularly keen on the study of social diversities and discriminations as well as processes of criminalisation. Deeply interested in the course she’s attending and with a passion for reading, she’s also curious about how these aspects are emphasised in both works of fiction and non-fiction.