Yeon-mi Park took a long and difficult journey to escape North Korea... now she's a celebrity in Seoul speaking out against the Kim dynasty's regime.
Tuesday, September 2, 2014 - 21:30

Yeon-mi Park has been described as the new face of defectors from North Korea; a 20-year-old rising star in Seoul, who's not afraid to speak out against the Kim dynasty's regime.

But her smiling appearances on a TV music and chat show give away little of her family's heartbreaking journey from oppression in the North to freedom in the South.

Mary Ann Jolley hears Yeon-mi’s emotional story of escaping hunger and poverty in North Korea, where her father suffered at the hands of labour camp guards.

And the family’s desperate two year journey to ultimately reach the South. They ended up walking through the Gobi desert for 24 hours in freezing temperatures to reach freedom.

Yeon-mi and her mother were even separated from her sister for seven years with no idea whether she had survived.

She’s experienced so much in her 20 years, but this inspiring woman is ignoring threats from the regime in the North to open the world’s eyes to what she’s seen.

SBS's Insight program recently featured Yeon-mi in a program on changing people's mindsets. Watch it here.

Mary Ann Jolley continued her investigations on Yeon-mi Park after this story. Read her updated report here.

Interview With Mary Ann

Mary Ann speaks to Peggy Giakoumelos from SBS World News Radio about her story and the increasing worldwide attention on Yeon-mi Park and her story.



First, the remarkable story of a young woman's escape from North Korea, and her quest to tell the world about the horrors she left behind. Now living in South Korea, Yeon-mi Park has found celebrity through her anti-North Korea TV show, and she's been warned that the dictatorship is so incensed by what she's saying that they want her tracked down. Mary Ann Jolley flew to Seoul to meet her.

REPORTER: Mary Ann Jolley

The program is called 'On My Way To Meet You', and its brightest star is 20-year-old Yeon-mi Park. The show screens on cable TV in South Korea and is part chat show, part talent quest, and part musical. But it's not all froth and bubbles.

YEON-MI PARK: This show is actually telling the truth about North Korea. And of course North Korea itself is propaganda and they don't want to let people know about the truth, behind the scene it's really ugly, right?

Yeon-mi uses her star power to let viewers know how difficult life is in North Korea and the message is getting home where it matters.

YEON-MI PARK: In China it's very popular right now. Lots of people are seeing this show and they send this back to North Korea. People see it and they are saying... "œI know that lady, she's from here..." So it's very popular in North Korea now.

These photographs are remnants of Yeon-mi's former life that began in North Korea over 20 years ago. She's taken a break from the TV studio to visit her mother, with her older sister Eun-mi. Not so long ago, a family gathering like this seemed impossible. The three of them have survived a painful journey to be here together. Yeon-mi and her sister grew up under the leadership of Kim Jong-il. It was the late 1990s - the time of the great famine.

YEON-MI PARK: I was nine years old or ten. Next to the school some street kids were there. And they were dying there. But I saw that too many times. So I did not know it was really a sad thing because nobody told me that's a really horrible thing.

Yeon-mi's father was a party member, and worked in the capital, Pyongyang.

MOTHER (Translation): When Kim Jong-il stopped providing rations to the nation, he stopped surveillance of people's businesses. We had to survive on our own. So we got into illegal trading.

When Yeon-mi was eight, her father was arrested for smuggling goods to China to sell on the black market. He was sentenced to 17 years in a labour camp. North Korea has never admitted to the horrors of life in its labour camps - not even to their existence. But Amnesty International has released these surveillance photos of the camps where torture and beatings happen every day.

MOTHER (Translation): They were kicking him in the same spot every day, just the spot where it hurt the most. It got so bad he couldn't go to the toilet because he couldn't walk.

Yeon-mi's father was given a brief reprieve from prison for medical treatment. It was then the family decided to escape.

EUN-MI (Translation): My dad said to us "œYou have no hope and future in North Korea. If you want to find hope you will have to leave and go to China." That's why we decided to leave. I found a broker and left home first.

At just 16, Eun-mi fled the country with a friend. Her family was devastated. Desperate to find her sister, Yeon-mi and her parents walked across the mountains to the border, where they bribed guards to cross the Tumen River to China. But there was no sign of Eun-mi.

YEON-MI PARK: We called North Korea after we escaped And they were saying the people were trying to rape her and she didn't say yes to them so they killed her.

In the Chinese towns along the border with North Korea, Yeon-mi's family was destitute, and on the run - powerless to search any further for Eun-mi. Stateless, with no identity, they feared being arrested and sent back to North Korea.

YEON-MI PARK: I couldn't go anywhere. Even out of my door. I couldn't even turn on the lights. And they were constantly unlocking the door and checking my ID card. So that time was like a nightmare for me.

And things were about to get worse. Yeon-mi's father was diagnosed with cancer and was given just three months to live.

YEON-MI PARK: My thought was not because I was sad or he is dying, just what can I do with his body after he dies, you know? I cannot even hide my body somewhere. But what about the dead body? It was really... I felt really guilty for my father. But it's life, right? It's reality. So as a North Korean defector there is no way to even comfortably die. No funeral too, so...

MOTHER (Translation): We paid two people to help carry his body. They went deep into the mountains and Yeon-mi went with them. Yeon-mi carried her father's body.

YEON-MI PARK: And then at 3 a.m. we had to move his body. Everybody's sleeping and then I buried him. Like, at midnight, by myself and I was sitting there and it was so cold. There was nobody I could call. There was nobody who came to my father's funeral. Nobody knows.

In the depth of winter, the temperature at 40 degrees, and with only a compass to guide them, Yeon-mi and her mother walked for 24 hours through the Gobi Desert, across the Chinese border, into Mongolia.

YEON-MI PARK: We didn't have money so we had to walk, just walk. No cars, no guide. And then it's; I didn't want to die, I was like 17. But I saw my father's death. It was not human. He was less better than an animal. And I didn't want the end of my life to be like that.

Yeon-mi and her mother arrived in Seoul after seeking asylum at the South Korean Embassy in Mongolia. The capital is only 50km from North Korea, but their long and treacherous journey had taken them two years, and they'd lost two family members on the way. Five years on, they're still adjusting to their new life.

YEON-MI PARK: It's like big shocking, you know. It's like huge. It's different, so different and so many lights. There was a lot of catching up for me to study, so I had to study a lot. These days I have to work a lot.

Yeon-mi joined the TV program three years ago. Today, she's pretending to be a child rehearsing a dance to perform for the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il. Mocking the regime is dangerous work - some of the women have received threats, and the North Korean propaganda machine is in overdrive.


YEON-MI PARK: The first time they said "œThey're all South Korean actors. "œThey're not North Korean They're just pretending to be North Korean." So now they're saying they kidnapped them and then they force them to say lies So that's what they tell the people in North Korea.

Raising the ire of the regime was never the intention, but rather the show's producers hoped the program would break down social barriers by helping South Koreans understand the plight of their kinsmen from the North. Like Mrs Lee, who was a nurse in the North Korean army for 11 years.

MRS LEE (Translation): This is me. This is me as a 29-year-old.

It took her nine attempts before she managed to get to South Korea. Each time she was sent back to North Korea, she was tortured.

MRS LEE (Translation): These are my scars. When I was arrested, during my interrogation there was this hot plate with steel and they hit me with it here. If you look at my back, I have dents from nails they hammered into me. They also poured hot water down my back so I have scars from the burns. You're naked when they torture you.

The TV show has turned Yeon-mi into a celebrity. But instead of wallowing in it, she's using her new-found high profile to carve out a serious career. She's just landed herself another job - this time, as a reporter for New Focus International.

YEON-MI PARK: Our place is the biggest newspaper for North Korean refugees. So actually here North Korean defectors are writing articles on North Korean issues. So actually they've got really good connections so they get very good information from North Korea.

The former propaganda poet, Jang Jin-sung, is the founder and director of the online news service. In December last year, New Focus broke the story that Kim Jong-un's uncle had been executed. The New York Times celebrated Mr Jang on the cover of its magazine and not unexpectedly, North Korea placed him on its target list.

JANG JIN-SUNG (Translation): They stated they would remove me and the New Focus team. This shows how angry the dictator was but also proves that we are doing our job well.

..and that's a good reason to expand. Yeon-mi has been recruited to host the organisation's new online news broadcast.

JANG JIN-SUNG (Translation): She's young. She's a good writer as well. And so if we work on her talents, I think she has the potential to become a star.

Under the bright lights of the TV studio, Yeon-mi lived with the heartache of not knowing what had happened to her sister. She made this dramatic appeal in the hope Eun-mi might see it.

YEON-MI PARK (Translation): I'm here today in the hope of finding my sister. I really hope she sees this message. Eun-mi... I miss you so much. I won't be able to die in peace until I see you again. Don't forget I'm here waiting for you. We must meet again soon. I love you.

But in reality, Yeon-mi was losing hope - and had started to believe her sister was dead.


YEON-MI PARK: After five years later I started believing a little bit. The people surrounding me said "œIt's time for you to accept that."

Her older sister, Eun-mi, had in fact survived, but was living in China under such terrible circumstances that, even now, she finds difficult to talk about.

EUN-MI (Translation): You've finally asked me the hardest and scariest question. I was actually quite worried about you asking.

There's clearly a lot that's too raw to broach, but she does open up about the way she was exploited by employers.

EUN-MI (Translation): They'd say "œWe know you're from North Korea. You should be grateful that we even let you work here. Don't even think about money." That meant I wouldn't be paid for my work.

When she finally left the job, the restaurant owner had gangsters track her down.

EUN-MI (Translation): Of course, it was like a nightmare. I had people chasing me. I knew they would kill me if they caught me. I just knew. That's the main reason I decided to come to South Korea.

In January this year, while Eun-mi was at the processing centre for North Korean defectors, the South Korean intelligence service discovered her mother and sister were living in Seoul.

YEON-MI PARK: My mum just called me and she was crying. She couldn't speak any words. I was, like, "œWhat is wrong, Mum? Tell me what is wrong." And then "œYour sister is here."

After seven years of separation, it was an emotional reunion. one that echoes every time they see each other.

EUN-MI (Translation): I couldn't speak. I was so happy, but shocked.

REPORTER: And what was that like, when you saw her?

YEON-MI PARK: Oh, it was like... just you know... What can you say if you didn't see for seven years? You can't say "œHow are you?" There are just no words for that Just seeing each other and holding hands together.

Not surprisingly, the two sisters are inseparable these days, and enjoying their freedom and the riches of capitalism.

YEON-MI PARK: (Translation): Eun-mi, you like black, right? Oh, bling, bling!

YEON-MI PARK: She's got a really big wound here. It's never going to, you know, recover again. So I don't want her to live with self-pity. I want her to be confident, you know, to embrace other people. So that's why I'm telling her "œYou are so blessed."

As Yeon-mi's star rises, it's her family she cherishes the most. Her sisters have embraced their new South Korean stepfather, but they'll never stop missing their own. Her safety and security now a serious issue, Yeon-mi refuses to cower to the threats of the regime she abhors.

YEON-MI PARK: My detective just told me "œSeriously, you are in danger "œand you have to change all your information." But I said no. Because my name, Park Yeon-mi, is my legacy from my father, that's the only one he just left me. I'm very proud of my name so...That's why if I die, I'm okay. I mean, I already experienced this freedom. So I'm satisfied. So at least I can say that I did something for you, my people in North Korea. So you know...

Yeon-mi and her family have had a harrowing time. The childhood lullaby is comforting, but brimming with sadness and pain.

MOTHER (Translation): But as the years and months go by, my longing for her grows. Oh, dear Mother, thank you for raising me, dear Mother.




2nd September 2014