N. Korean author Park addresses Athenian School
By Lou Fancher
The pathways that brought two young women from South Korea to the Athenian School in Danville last week could not be more different.
Anna Kim, 18, is a junior and member of the school's Asian Club. The soft-spoken but assertive native of Seoul, South Korea, was given the opportunity to experience greater academic challenges and broader world experiences by her parents, who sent her halfway around the globe to attend the private day and boarding school.
Yeonmi Park, 22, is an author, human rights activist and defector from North Korea. She was starved, beaten, sold into sexual slavery and in 2007 ran, crawled and fought to escape her civil servant family's home in the tiny North Korean city of Hyesan. Invited to the school by Rakestraw Books in coordination with Athenian Library Director Jim Sternberg, Park's visit on Oct. 22 introduced her new book, "In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom" (Penguin Press)
The book tells the powerful story of a family torn apart by North Korea's repressive regime, intimidated along with their countrymen by three generations of the ruling Kim family, separated and suffering during their efforts to overcome suppression -- and marvelously, but not without damage and loss, reunited as free individuals in South Korea.
Sternberg said in comments before Park's presentation that Athenian's student body includes students from 12 countries. "The school population is far more diverse than Danville's demographic profile," he said. "Most people don't know that over 20 percent of our students receive financial aid. Yeonmi's visit is fitting, given our school's mission of preparing students (to have) a positive impact as global citizens."
Kim said that hearing Park's story is hard but important. "It's human rights; it relates to all people," she said. "We must participate."
Park briefly told the story that forms the narrative of her 273-page book. Traveling from "a country where 25 million people are trapped," she says she and her mother made their way to China, where they were betrayed, her mother raped and Park's sister Eunmi, who had previously escaped, was nowhere to be found. Eventually bargaining their way out of servitude as virtual slaves to poor Chinese farmers, they crossed the Gobi Desert into Mongolia and made their way to South Korea. Christian missionaries aided in their rescue, but writing, reading and studying, Park said, played major roles in her recovery.
Despite her family at times profiting from North Korea's thriving Jangmadang black market, Park at age 13 -- the age of the youngest students in the audience -- had never eaten an entire orange. Far worse, she had known intellectual deprivation. "I couldn't imagine public transportation, just ox and walking," she said. "We ate grasshoppers. I never saw different color people ... or satellite pictures of the world. I never knew Africa, Canada, San Francisco."
Taught that Americans were "bastards" with cold eyes, she said her mother warned her not to criticize North Korean leaders. "Even birds and mice have ears," her mother cautioned.
In South Korea, Park was sent to a re-education camp after government officials determined she was not a spy sent by North Korea. "For the first time, people asked me, 'What is your favorite color? What are your hobbies?' I couldn't answer because I never thought that way."
She improved her English by watching 10 seasons of the television show "Friends." She expanded her awareness by reading children's books, biographies, world histories, classics and Shakespeare. One special book written by Korean actress and humanitarian Kim Hye Ja awakened her activism and an urgent need to tell her story publicly. Earning her GED in 2011, she attended Dongguk University, studying police administration. After seven years apart, she and her mother jubilantly reunited with her sister.
Even so, Park notes in her book and her talk, there were mistakes and exploitation. Caught up in a new, strange world, she participated in a scripted cable television show that aimed to cast North Korean defectors in something other than a grim image. She became known as "the Paris Hilton of North Korea." Accusations of inconsistencies in her story arose in the media. Park attributes them to comments taken out of context, occasional inaccurate memories and miscommunications due to language barriers.
But nothing will mar the gratitude she told students she feels for "humanity that sheds light on people who traffic in darkness." Discovering what it means to live in freedom every day, she said students must raise their voices, write to Congress about North Koreans living in captivity and use social media to educate the public.