Yeonmi Park’s story is incredible. We are about the same age yet we have experienced such different life trajectories; I have a privileged, peaceful life where I don’t worry about my next meal or political violence and she happened to be born into a land ravaged by generations of dictators who had a implemented a warped socialist rule. The resiliency of Yeonmi, her mother, and sister have deeply touched me and this book is definitely one of the most important books I have ever read.
Yeonmi was born in North Korea in a tiny border town with China during the early 1990s. Her family was at a decent social ranking, enough so that the authorities weren’t on pursuit of them but not good enough to have a stable life to guarantee access to food and jobs. To make ends meet, Yeonmi’s father began to work on the black market, smuggling goods like precious medals from China into North Korea. It was risky but Yeonmi’s mother felt that there was no other choice. They had to do anything to stay alive and keep food on the table. Eventually, Yeonmi’s father was caught and sentenced to hard labor. Her mother had to begin supporting Yeonmi and her sister on her own, so she spent weeks at a time traveling around North Korea picking up her husband’s business. Before long, Yeonmi’s sister, Eunmi had heard she could help her family by escaping to China. There was a lot of demand for young Korean women but many Korean women didn’t know that they were to be effectively human trafficked and sold to families looking for brides for their sons. Because they were illegal immigrants, they had no rights and were constantly coerced by their new “families” to perform intense labor and bear sons. But many Koreans still viewed making it to China an escape and would risk it all for a chance at survival.
When Yeonmi finally made it to China at the age of 13, she was beat, watched her mother be raped, raped herself, married off, and psychologically tormented by various brokers who were looking to turn a profit on her. Her mother also suffered tremendously, experiencing pain I could not even begin to imagine. Yeonmi and her mother were motivated to survive in order to find Eunmi, who they hadn’t heard from for years. When Yeonmi and her mother caught word that there was possible escape from China to South Korea via Mongolia, they were faced with a difficult choice: to leave Eunmi behind or to save themselves. They chose to risk traveling through the frigid Gobi Desert to Mongolia where they resettled in South Korea. When help from the South Korean government, Yeonmi and her mother were able to find housing and Yeonmi was able to attain her university degree. As Yeonmi began to realize the injustices that her mother and her experienced, she began to express what had happened and realize her story could help others. She is an incredibly brave person and there is so much to admire. Her life has been hard but she is such a gift to this world and to others and I hope she knows it.