Name: In Order To Live
Author: Yeonmi Park / Maryanne Vollers
In this month’s review, I will be look at the harrowing yet inspirational autobiography of Yeonmi Park – a North Korean defector who escaped the country with her mother in 2007, eventually reaching South Korea and freedom in 2009, as detailed in her memoir In Order To Live.
I had first heard of Yeonmi and her story when I was going down a bit of a YouTube rabbit hole one evening and came across an interview she did with Lyse Doucet for Women In The World in 2015. The interview is extremely harrowing and upsetting in places but is also very hopeful and inspiring.
In the interview, she explains how her mother and herself crossed the frozen Yalu River into China, only for her mother to be raped and for them to fall victim to human traffickers. They spent two further years in China as an illegal immigrant before crossing the Gobi Desert with some Christian missionaries into Mongolia, where she was finally able to go to South Korea and later moved to the United States. I’ve put the interview below for you to watch.
As a side note, after watching this interview I also spent a lot of time watching her YouTube channel which is definitely as eye-opening, fascinating and terrifying and is worth watching to find out more of what life is like behind the curtain in North Korea.
You can visit her channel here.
The book is divided into three sections, with Park describing her early years in North Korea in the first part up to her escape from North Korea into China. The second part follows her years spent in hiding in China followed by her escape to Mongolia. The final part she finally makes it to South Korea and it examines her years adjusting to finally being free.
Park was born in 1993 as the second child of her parents, father Park Jin-sik and mother Keum Sook. Her older sister Eunmi was born in 1991. During her early years, North Korea was in the midst of a widespread famine and they also were receiving reduced financial aid from other countries, as it’s closest allies the Soviet Union had collapsed and China’s economic ties were getting closer to capitalist countries such as the US and South Korea. As a result she spent many of these years malnourished and starving. Her father did have some connections and did run small businesses buying and selling on the black market for many years – as North Korea is a Communist country this type of behavior is illegal (though after the famine some government approved markets did start to happen).
However in desperation in order to feed his family he became involved in smuggling precious metals from Pyongyang to China but was caught and sent to a prison camp.
Due to her dad being a prisoner, Yeonmi and her family lost all status they could have in North Korea meaning they were again starving and malnourished which was when they decided to try to get to China. Her father managed to be freed from the prison early by stating he was close to death. They hatched a plan to be smuggled across the Yalu River together but Yeonmi came down with severe stomach cramps due to an intestinal infection on the day they were going to leave so her sister Eunmi had decided to leave eithout them and goes missing. The next day, Yeonmi and her mother tried to search for Eunmi around the city and visit the house of those going to smuggle them out. At that moment Yeonmi and her mother make a snap decision to take them to China that night.
The second part picks up the story just after they crossed the river into China and the two years they spent in China in hiding. After crossing the river Yeonmi’s mother is raped and they are passed through several trafficking gangs as they are sold to Chinese men to eventually become brides. When they find out Yeonmi was only 14 initially the smuggler promises her mother he would look after her til she was of age if she agrees to be sold on her own, however three nights after she is sold he then tries to rape her and then sells her on to another trafficker named Hongwei.
Hongwei also tries to rape her but Yeonmi resists, though she eventually strikes a deal with him that if he helps her to reunite her family she won’t fight back so is raped by him. She then spends a few years with Hongwei helping him to smuggle more North Korean brides but incredibly he does help her get her mother back and also arranges for her father to come to China. However sadly her father was suffering from cancer and passed away soon afterwards. They also try to find her sister without success.
After a year passes the human trafficking business is starting to suffer for Hongwei, with the Beijing Olympics happening in the background meaning China was clamping down on people coming to China from North Korea so Yeonmi persuades him to allow her more freedom by obtaining a fake ID. However when she visits the gangster who makes the ID’s she ends up kidnapped by another gangster who wants her to stay with him.
After a month in captivity, she manages to escape back to Hongwei but it is here he agrees to let her and her mother go. They then go to work for an online chat room in China where they are paid to message men online. It is here Yeonmi finally decides they have to escape China so they learn about a Christian aid mission smuggling people to Mongolia which both her and her mother join. This part then culminates in their journey to northern China, their time with the missionaries and their escape at night across the Gobi Desert into Mongolia.
In Mongolia they are immediately arrested and it appears they will be sent back to North Korea (Mongolia as a country has a topsy-turvy relationship with North Korea and how it treats people who escape from there, depending on which government was in power).
However they are sent to a military base where the South Korean embassy manage to reach the group they escape with and they are flown to Seoul. The rest of the book details her adjustment to life in South Korea – from her time at the National Intelligence Centre where she is interrogated to make sure she isn’t a spy, to her and her mother’s fast-track education to living in South Korea, including things we take for granted such as using a credit card or opening a bank account.
She even describes prejudices she faced as a North Korean defector initially but also how she managed to turn her life around to be able to go to university, as well as how she began to be an advocate for human rights in North Korea.
In the closing chapters, she is also finally reunited with her sister Eunmi who we find out was hiding at the traffickers’ house in North Korea on the day her and her mother asked to go to China. She later also escaped and had also been in hiding in China and was able to escape but instead of going to Mongolia she went the south east route to freedom.
Overall the book is a very gripping, yet harrowing and emotional read. The early chapters are fascinating yet repulsive in how they describe a life in North Korea that is closed off to our eyes (obviously we only see a crazy man with a silly haircut and the military parades in Pyongyang) but this brings the country to life.
Some particularly harrowing things include her school life and how maths problems instead of saying “apples” and “oranges” say “There are four American bastards, you kill two. How many are left?”. She also describes seeing someone executed for eating some beef during the famine and also the sense of paranoia that people had that Kim Jong Il could read people’s minds.
The second half of the book is the most shocking and disturbing to read as her and her mother struggle to survive in secret in China and some parts can be very difficult to get through, especially reading about the violence inflicted on them both. This section off the book is also nail-bitingly tense as they evade the authorities and later make their escape to Mongolia.
The book then ends on an inspiring and hopeful note as her mother and Yeonmi are finally free and adjust to life in South Korea. We also learn how Yeonmi faced adversity and read hundreds of books to try to catch back up with her peers in school and was able to graduate on time. This is even though her education level when she arrived in South Korea was equivalent to a six year old (she was fifteen at the time).
In researching for this review, I was sad to see that the novel is disputed as being embellished and even fabricated which I would like to give my opinion in. and that I personally didn’t get that impression at all.
I would say however even if that is the case, the book clearly has some elements in truth and even if parts of other defectors stories are used it is still an important read which I think everyone should read to find out more about this evil regime and what it does to it’s people.
I couldn’t recommend this book more highly.