How to Escape from North Korea
Sean Foster

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North Korea

How to Escape from North Korea

As a teenager, Yeonmi Park fled the brutal regime of Kim Jong-il. Now she's speaking out as his son threatens the world.

We're waiting for Yeonmi Park in one of the Opera House's surprisingly sparse dressing rooms when the alert comes in: North Korea has conducted a sixth nuclear test. State media is saying the rogue regime has detonated its largest hydrogen bomb yet in an underground testing facility, a claim backed up by tremors felt south of the DMZ [Korean Demilitarized Zone] and as far away as China.

Looking up at me from his phone, our photographer Sean raises his eyebrows. We're about to interview a woman who's become one of the Kim regime's most high-profile defectors, having escaped North Korea as a teenager, on foot, more than a decade ago. The timing feels almost too perfect.

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"I wonder if she knows?" he asks.

She doesn't know.

Whisked into the room by a publicist, Yeonmi Park—strikingly tiny even in towering heels—is all smiles, albeit deep in the throes of jet lag. In Sydney to speak at the Opera House's Antidote festival, she'll be back on a plane to New York tomorrow to try and make it home in time for school.

I broach the news of the nuclear test as we take a seat. Instantly, her face drops. "What's happened?" she asks, peering over to my phone. "I'm not surprised. I mean, I lived there," she sighs. "Finally [the world is] realizing how bad things are in North Korea. It's been too late, almost, we should never have let this go this far."

What's immediately clear is that for Park, North Korea's aggression isn't just news or a reminder of what she escaped as a teenager. It's a clear and present threat to the family and friends she left behind. The ones she knows are still alive because the regime has used them in propaganda videos smearing her.

"All my relatives are still there, all my friends, my teachers, my neighbors. My home is there," she says. "[The videos are] like updates of the news of my relatives. I'm almost hoping that they make another video. So I can know if they are alive or not."

I ask if she ever worries that her speaking out will put her family back in North Korea in danger, or herself. In the past few years, Park has traveled the world telling audiences about the brutality of life in North Korea, and the lengths she and her family went to in order to escape. Her speech to the One Young World conference in Ireland has more than 3.5 million views on YouTube.

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She looks down at her hands folded in her lap and nods. "Yes. I mean, look at how [Kim Jong-un] kills his own brother," she replies. "He kills his own brother… without any, any reluctance."

Yeonmi's story of escape has be widely told, and closely scrutinised. But at its core it's a reminder of the incredible drive humans have to survive, even in the most dehumanising conditions. At 13 years old, she and her parents fled their hometown of Hyesan on North Korea's border with China. They were following Yeonmi's sister, then just 16, who'd left ahead of them.

"Initially, we wanted to go together but I got really sick and I went to hospital… the doctor pushed my tummy and said I have appendix. And then he just opened my stomach in that afternoon, without any painkiller, and he learned that I was malnourished and that infection was there," she explains. "I had to have a surgery so that's why I couldn't go with my sister. So she escaped with her friend and a few days later, after we removed my stitch, I escaped with my mother."

Attempting to avoid the North Korean border guards, armed with machine guns, the Parks headed through the mountains and across the Yalu River into China, guided by "some people who wanted to help us." These helpful people, they soon found out, were human traffickers. Falling into the hands of human traffickers is a common fate for North Korean defectors.

"Most women, like 80–90 percent of women among the [defectors are] victimised by human trafficking. So, almost everyone," Yeonmi says. "My mother was sold to a Chinese farmer for, I think $65. Less than $100. Then I was sold for, like, over $200 because I was a virgin and young."

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Yeonmi says the Chinese government plays an active role in putting defectors in harm's way, and it needs to start following the law. "Even though Geneva Convention doesn't allow them to do it, they do send defectors back to their country," she explains. "So we are very vulnerable because even those who try to sell us know we cannot go to [the Chinese] police and ask them to help us."

Photos by Sean Foster

In China, Yeonmi lost her father to cancer. "He had lung cancer in the prison camp in North Korea and died in China," she says. "I buried his ashes in the middle of [the] mountains. With no funeral or nothing, like a dog. We just buried [him] in the mountain. But he would have told me that life was gift, and he fought for it every day… I try to remember how lucky I am, how lucky I am to just be alive."

Yeonmi wants to work to see the North Korean people freed. She says removing Kim Jong-un would be significant—"the Kim the brand it is so deep… we associate with the Kim family as gods. They have brainwashed people"—but it's not the whole answer. "We need to empower [the North Korean] people, no matter what. Give them tools to understand the world… tools to create their own freedom. Right now, they don't even have internet," she says. "They need to know the truth, they need to know that the rest of the world is not evil. They need to know that Americans are not bastards."

She likens the North Korean government's iron-fisted control of information to the tactics of 1984. "It talks about 'the control of the words'… In North Korea we don't have word for stress or depression. How you can be depressed in the socialist paradise?" Only years after her escape did Yeonmi first hear the word "trauma."

"I didn't remember a lot of things. Like the first day when I escaped to China, the first thing I saw was my mother raped. Turns out she was raped two times that day, but I don't remember—I only remember the one. Memories mixed, switched, blacked out." They say it's all because of trauma, she explains. Like many who escape North Korea, including her mum and sister who now live in South Korea, Yeonmi is still working through what she survived.

But, for now, her mind is on getting back to New York for her next class. Apparently, "I had to make a speech at the Sydney Opera House" doesn't pass as an excuse at Columbia University, where she's studying human rights. Donald Trump's America, her adopted home, still seems very much a curiosity to her. "I [first] went there when Donald Trump was running for presidency. I ask people, 'Is this normal? Is this how it works?' [They said,] 'This is definitely not normal…'

"I was like, 'Am I bringing the dictators?'" she laughs. "I mean, I just escaped one, why is this happening to me?"

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