There are people in the world who feel forgotten and alone. The powerful and heart-wrenching speech of the human rights activist and North Korea defector, Park Yeonmi, tells us her story and opens our ears to the people’s cries for freedom.
Two years ago, Park Yeonmi spoke at The One Young World Summit detailing her harrowing tale of how she escaped North Korea towards freedom. Recently, her poignant speech went viral which gives her the global microphone to have her story be heard by more and more people.
North Korean Girl’s Fight to Live
Opening her speech, Yeonmi says she is doing this not just for herself but also on behalf of all the “people who want to tell the world what they want to say.” She then proceeds to detail her horrible life in North Korea which she describes as an “unimaginable country.”
Information and communication are restricted. They are only provided with one channel on TV and there is no internet. Yeonmi speaks out how they are not allowed to “sing, say, wear, or think what we want.” She continues how North Korea is the only country in the world who executes people for making unauthorized phone calls.
Moreover, there are no books, songs, press, or movies about love stories between men and women. The only story they are given is “a propaganda to brainwash us about Kim dictators.”
Yeonmi learned that at a young age and she believed it was the only world that existed. She was abducted at birth before she even knew the words “freedom and human rights.” At the age of three, her mother warned her not to even whisper.
She admits she once believed the North Korean dictator could read her mind. Fear was etched on her mind especially when “expressing doubts about the greatness of the regime” can send three generations of a family to prison and even execution.
Park Yeonmi’s father planned their escape to China after being imprisoned for engaging in an illegal business. However, he chose to stay behind since he was sick and he believed he would only slow them down.
The day they escaped North Korea, Yeonmi had to realize horribly how they are not yet free. Without the patriarch of the family, Yeonmi and her mother are left defenseless. One of the traffickers caught interest on Yeonmi, however, her mother intervened and offered herself instead.
“Women are weak, but mothers are strong,” Yeonmi narrates of a North Korean saying. She was only 14 years old as she watched her mother raped to protect her.
In the following year, while they were living in secret, her father died from colon cancer. Yeonmi tried to compose herself as she shares how there was no funeral and they had to “bury him at 3 AM in secret.” She says she “couldn’t even cry” as she was “afraid to be sent back to North Korea.”
Following the Stars to Freedom
Park Yeonmi and her mother journeyed through the Gobi desert to reach Mongolia with the help of Christian missionaries and human rights activists. They are only armed with a compass, and when it broke down, they “followed the stars to freedom.”
Yeonmi’s story towards freedom reached its agonizing peak when they arrived in Mongolia which she describes as their “freedom moment.” It was “death or dignity,” she says.
Guards stopped them with threats of deportation. “Armed with knives,” Yeonmi narrates, “we were prepared to kill ourselves if we are going to be sent back to North Korea.” Yeonmi stands her ground how they just “wanted to live as humans.”
Possibly seeing their conviction, the Mongolian guards let them through. From there, they flew to Seoul, South Korea to seek asylum.
While people have rules to follow in order to live in order, Yeonmi reminds us to “focus less on the regime.” Instead, we have to put the spotlight on the “people who are being forgotten” – whose lives are not given enough value and whose cries fall on deaf ears.
Ending her speech, Park Yeonmi says as she was crossing the Gobi desert, “scared of dying,” she thought nobody cared. However, she addresses the people who have “listened to my story” are the ones who “cared” and thanks them as she sobs.