Yeonmi Park captured the world's attention in 2014 with a speech that recounted her escape from North Korea and life under that brutal regime. Since then she's become one of that country's highest profile defectors, a committed human rights advocate and a personal enemy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Now 22 and in Australia to talk about her book "In Order To Live" at the Sydney Writer's Festival, Yeonmi Park spoke to SBS:
She witnessed atrocities in North Korea
As a child growing up in Hyesan, near the North Korean border with China, Yeonmi regularly saw bodies in rubbish heaps, frozen babies abandoned in the streets and desperate people crying for help. When she was nine years old she saw her friend's mother publicly executed for watching a Hollywood movie. "We aren't free to sing, say, wear or think what we want," she told the One Young World Summit. When she and her mother escaped North Korea over the border to China, she watched as her mother was raped by traffickers and they were both sold to traffickers.
Now she relives those experiences nightly in her dreams. "I hate to go to sleep, and I hate the dark," she says. "I just accept that because after you go through all of that, there will be some consequences. I just scraped through, so I’m happy, and if that’s all I have to go through – bad nightmares and not getting a good sleep – I’m just going to accept that how it is. I’ll surrender my desire to have happy dreams. Even though I try to forget about it, subconsciously I remember things and that’s why in my dreams I’m still in North Korea, still in China, and finding a way to escape."
She has apologised for inconsistencies in her story previously
In 2014 she appeared on SBS's Insight and Dateline programs. Afterwards Dateline questioned the accuracy of Yeonmi's story. At the time Yeonmi put the inconsistencies down to the language barrier and her imperfect childhood memories. However it has since emerged that she wasn't telling the whole story.
Like thousands of other refugees, Yeonmi had been trafficked in China. "I thought if I tell anybody that I was being sold and raped at the age of 13, who could have possibly married me?" she says. "I just really thought that was the end of the world if I tell that story. So I had to just make up that, you know, I wasn’t trafficked, that thing never happened to me. My parents protected me in China."
Yeonmi says writing her book "In Order To Live" was a chance to set the record straight once and for all. "The book is not just based on my memories actually. It's my mother's and my sister's and the ladies who we escaped together," she says.
Millions of people have viewed her 2014 speech
In 2014 Yeonmi made an emotional speech at the One Young World Summit in Dublin. Dressed in a pink hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, Yeonmi fought back tears as she recounted her life under the North Korean regime. Finishing with a plea for delegates to help "shed light on the darkest place in the world", the audience was crying and Yeonmi had become the human face of North Korea's oppressed. The video has been viewed almost 2.4 million times on YouTube.
She's probably on Kim Jong-un's most wanted list
In January 2015 a North Korean government-run website posted an 18 minute video titled "The Human Rights Propaganda Puppet, Yeonmi Park", using some of her aunts, uncles and cousins who were still living in North Korea to denounce her. "I knew I was risking my life. It's traditional in North Korea to assassinate outspoken dissidents, right? But It really got me when I saw my relatives being portrayed in the videos on YouTube," Yeonmi says. "I just realised that [other] people are risking their lives for this. Every time I speak, somebody's life depends on it."
She tries to remain philosophical about the risk to her own safety. "After all those years [in North Korea], it’s almost like an extra life I’ve got [now], because I could have easily died 100 times. It’s not like I’m special, I’m just lucky. Dying is not that hard. But I’m scared a bit, so let’s hope for the best."
She does wish the rest of the world would treat Kim Jong-un as a murderer, rather than as a comic figure.
"His haircut is funny. He is fat. He is like a cartoon character somehow," Yeonmi told the One Young World Summit in Bangkok in 2015. "But Kim Jong-un is not a joke to me. He was a God I had to worship every day. He is a murderer. Making fun of dictators cannot be enough. Why is it so funny?"
Yeonmi knows she will never be able to return to North Korea. "Even now Kim Jun-un hates me. If I go back, woah! He killed his own uncle, right? If he can do that, he can do anything. So it's probably not a good idea to go back!"
She dreams of a normal life, marriage and family
These days Yeonmi is based in New York, where she is studying economics at Columbia University. She will continue to speak out about the conditions in North Korea, but she doesn't want that to define her. "I don’t want to be an activisit as a job. I want to have a normal job. I will speak out, I will do whatever I can. But I don’t think it’s going to be job. It’s going to be my passion."
She also hopes to find love, get married and have children one day. "Oh definitely. I will not give up anything because of what I went through!," she says. "I think I deserve and everyone deserves all of that. I’m very ambitious to be happy."