This one’s for you if you’re interested in what life is really like in modern day North Korea.
Shocking. The word I would use to describe this book. Shocking on a whole new scale. In many ways, this book reminded me of reading about Mao’s reign over China in Wild Swans. But the author of this book was born in 1993, the same year as me. To think that the experiences she describes are happening to people now, is truly horrific. The poverty in North Korea, the human trafficking in China once they cross the border, the journey to South Korea via Mongolia, and the enormous culture shock of arriving in South Korea, all accompanied by a perennial fear that is difficult to imagine. The saddest thing of all is when you try to think of a way out of the terrible situation that faces North Koreans. The fear of nuclear war will surely cripple any meaningful action by western governments. And the chances of change from within are equally crippled by the culture of citizens monitoring each other and living in fear of the authorities.
“We all belonged to inminbam, or neighbourhood “people’s units”, and we were ordered to inform on anyone who said the wrong thing. We lived in fear, and almost everyone- my mother included- had a personal experience that demonstrated the dangers of talking.” p16
“In most countries, a mother encourages her children to ask about everything, but not in North Korea…”even when you think you’re alone, the birds and mice can hear you whisper.” She didn’t mean to scare me, but I felt a deep darkness and horror inside me.” p19
“Everything about you is recorded and stored in local administrative offices and in big national organizations, and the information is used to determine where you can live, where you can go to school, and where you can work.” p26 This explains how the actions of the inminbam contribute to your position in society, or “songbun” status.
“Instead of scary fairy tales, we had stories set in a filthy and disgusting place called South Korea, where homeless children went barefoot and begged in the streets.” p46 Government propaganda extended not just to children’s stories but to their schoolwork as well- using derogative terms to describe Americans in maths problems.
“Just about every morning we woke up to the sound of the national anthem blaring on the government supplied radio. Every household in North Korea had to have one, and you could never turn it off. It was tuned to only one station, and that’s how the government could control you even when you were in your own home.” p66 This meant that people woke up and ate lunch at times set by the state.
After having an operation, “Because we had no money to bribe them, the nurses ignored me. My mother had to do everything from keeping my incision clean to giving me whatever food she could find.” p112
“The Chinese government doesn’t want a flood of immigrants, nor does it want to upset the leadership in Pyongyang. Not only is North Korea a trading partner, but it’s a nuclear power perched right on its border, and an important buffer between China and the American presence in the South.” p131 Therefore North Koreans were at huge risk of being sent back to North Korea by the Chinese authorities.
“The material things were worthless. I had lost my family. I wasn’t loved, I wasn’t free, and I wasn’t safe. I was alive, but everything that made life worth living was gone.” p142 In China, Yeonmi agreed to live with the person who had trafficked her and her mother in return for him buying her mother back so that they could be reunited.
“If the Chinese government would end its heartless policy of sending refugees back to North Korea, then the brokers would lose all of their power to exploit and enslave these women. But of course if North Korea wasn’t such a hell on Earth, there wouldn’t be a need for the women to flee in the first place.” p154/5
Reflecting on her time in China: “For nearly two years, I’d felt like all five of my senses were numbed. I could not feel, smell, see, hear, or taste the world around me. If I had allowed myself to experience these things in all their intensity, I might have lost my mind…So I survived, but I never felt joy, never felt safe. Now, as I listened to my mother sing the old songs, the numbness melted away.” p186
While crossing from China into Mongolia “I also started hating the dictator Kim Jong Il that night. I hadn’t thought much about it before, but now I blamed him for our suffering. I finally allowed myself to think bad thoughts about him because even if he could read my mind, I was probably going to die out here anyway…even in the face of death, betraying the Dear Leader was probably the hardest thing I had ever done.” p196
On reaching South Korea “I felt the shame of the survivor who lives while so many friend and family members have died or are are trapped in a living hell.” p206
Park’s interrogation agent in South Korea, interviewing her about her past, scoffs at the idea of her attending university but admits that everyone deserves second chance. “A second chance is what criminals get. I knew I wasn’t a criminal; I did what I had to do to survive and save my family.” p211 This also reminded me of the rhetoric that some people are using when discussing the current European refugee crisis.
“if everything I had been taught was a lie, how could I know these people weren’t lying, too? It was impossible to trust anyone in authority.” p215 Just one of the long lasting effects of having lived under such a dictatorship.
When asked during her 3 months at a resettlement center what her hobbies were, Park thought “I had no idea what a “hobby” was. When it was explained to me that it was something I did that made me happy, I couldn’t conceive of such a thing . My only goal was supposed to be making the regime happy.” p216