Young North Korean civil rights activist Yeonmi Park was born in 1993 in Hyesan, North Korea – just a brief 21 years ago. Born into a world very different from that of young Western children, Yeon-mi learned from an early age to hate foreigners, to express unending devotion toward her Dear Leader, and to trust no one. Her mother used to tell her that even the mice and birds had ears.
Last year, the UN released a report that was compiled based on interviews with over 300 North Korean refugees that detailed a mind-bogglingly long list of horrors and atrocities committed by the North Korean government against its own citizens. Many of the testimonies of those interred at government run hard labor camps painted a picture of abuse eerily similar to that which Louis Zamperini described in his biography “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand.
The difference is that Louis Zamperini was in a Japanese internment camp during a war in which his country was a legitimate enemy of his captors. The North Koreans were imprisoned in camps by their own country and the guards their own countrymen and women. And yet the testimonies of North Korean refugees regarding their treatment in forced labor camps in their own country bear painfully strong parallels to Zamperini’s accounts of the treatment of Japanese guards towards their enemies in WWII.
One woman testified to watching a guard beat a starving woman who had recently given birth to a baby, before forcing the woman to drown her own newborn child. Another man testified to being starved so severely, that he dropped from a fit and healthy 165 lbs to a sickly and alarming 79 lbs in his brief 10 months of incarceration. Several people have testified to various means of torture employed by the guards, and stories of rape, forced abortion and infanticide are too numerous to list. Except of course in the 400 page report compiled and released by the UN.
In 2007, when Yeon-mi was a mere 14 years old, she and her mother escaped into China across a frozen river in the middle of winter. But rather than being in a place of safety once they arrived, they were still in danger of being hunted down and sent back by Chinese authorities. Unable to rely on the protection of government officials, Yeon-mi and her mother were subjected to more than a year of further horrors and ongoing atrocities. Finally, nearly two years after their original escape from North Korea, they made their way into Mongolia where they found shelter at the South Korean embassy.
Today, Yeon-mi Park is a vocal and outspoken advocate on Independent for freedom in North Korea. As a frequent guest on numerous radio and TV shows, she has gained a platform in South Korea and after a passionate speech delivered at the One Young World Summit in Dublin, Ireland in 2014, she gained a global following of sympathetic supporters. Recently she appeared on BBC’s revered “Top 100 Women of 2104” list and was one of the youngest women to ever receive that prestigious honor.