Park Yeon-mi

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Yeon-mi Park
Yeonmi Park, 2014 (cropped).JPG
Yeonmi Park, in 2014
Born (1993-10-04) 4 October 1993 (age 27)
CitizenshipSouth Korea
EducationColumbia University (BA)
OccupationHuman rights activist
Korean name
Revised RomanizationBak Yeon-mi
McCune–ReischauerPak Yŏn-mi

Yeon-mi Park (Korean: 박연미; born 4 October 1993) is a North Korean defector and human rights activist who escaped from North Korea to China in 2007 and settled in South Korea in 2009, before moving to the United States in 2014. She came from an educated, politically connected family that turned to black market trading during North Korea's economic collapse in the 1990s.[1] After her father was sent to a labor camp for smuggling, her family faced starvation. They fled to China, where Park and her mother fell into the hands of human traffickers and she was sold into slavery before escaping to Mongolia.[2] She is now an advocate for victims of human trafficking in China and works to promote human rights in North Korea and around the globe.

Park rose to global prominence after she delivered a speech at the One Young World 2014 Summit in Dublin, Ireland — an annual summit that gathers young people from around the world to develop solutions to global problems.[3] Her speech, about her experience escaping from North Korea, received 50 million views in two days on YouTube and social media, with a current total of more than 80 million.[4] Her memoir In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom was published in September 2015.[5] The veracity of the testimony of Park Yeon-mi is however questioned by a number of experts on North Korea.[6]

Early life[edit]

Park was born on October 4, 1993, in Hyesan, Ryanggang, North Korea. Her father was a civil servant who worked at the Hyesan town hall as part of the ruling Workers' Party, and her mother was a nurse for the North Korean Army. Her father later established a metal smuggling operation in the capital, Pyongyang, where he spent most of the year while his wife and daughters remained in Hyesan. Her family was wealthy by North Korean standards during most of her childhood, although the family later struggled after her father was imprisoned for engaging in an illegal business.[7] Park has an older sister, Eun-mi.[8][9][10]

Escape from North Korea[edit]

Park's father was arrested for illegal trading and subjected to hard labor.[11] Her views of the Kim Dynasty changed when she watched an illegally imported DVD of the 1997 movie Titanic, which caused her to realize the oppressive nature of the North Korean government. She states that the movie taught her the true meaning of love and gave her "a taste of freedom".[12]

When reunited with his family, Park's father urged the family to plan their escape to China. Unfortunately, her older sister Eunmi left for China early without notifying them.[1] Park and her family feared that they would be punished for Eunmi's escape, so they escaped North Korea by traveling through China with the help of brokers who smuggle North Koreans into China. Chinese and Korean Christian missionaries helped them relocate to Mongolia, and South Korean diplomats facilitated the family's transition into Seoul. After this harrowing journey, which concluded in 2009, Park became a full-time activist for human rights in North Korea.[1]


Park and her family escaped North Korea by crossing the border into China. On the night of 30 March 2007, with the aid of human traffickers, Park and her mother crossed a frozen river and three mountains into China. According to The Guardian and The Telegraph, Park’s father was sick and stayed behind in North Korea, thinking his illness would slow them down.[13][1] Several other speeches from Park suggested, however, that her father had joined them in the crossing to China.[14][15] After crossing the Chinese border, Park and her mother headed for the Chinese province of Jilin. They unsuccessfully tried to find Park's sister, Eunmi, asking the traffickers about her whereabouts. Yeon-mi and her mother assumed that Eunmi had died.[1]

One of the traffickers threatened to report Park and her mother to the authorities if Park didn’t have sex with him. Her mother intervened for her safety by offering herself to the trafficker. In October 2007, Park sent word to her father and arranged to smuggle him into China. There, he was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer.

According to The Telegraph, while the family was living in secret, on January 2008 her father passed away. The family was unable to formally mourn him, fearing that they would be discovered by Chinese authorities, and buried his cremated remains in the ground of a nearby mountain.[1] Park's mother told The Diplomat in 2014 that they had paid two people to help carry his body up the mountain for burial instead.[15]

Park and her mother found a Christian shelter headed by Chinese and South Korean missionaries in the port city of Qingdao, China. Due to the city's large ethnic Korean population, they were able to evade the attention of authorities. With the help of the missionaries, they took a chance and fled to South Korea through Mongolia.[1]


In February 2009, after receiving aid from human rights activists and Christian missionaries, Park and her mother traveled through the Gobi Desert to Mongolia to seek asylum from South Korean diplomats,.[1]

When they reached the Mongolian border, guards stopped them and threatened to deport the pair back to China. Park recalls that at this point she and her mother pledged to kill themselves with their own knives. “I thought it was the end of my life. We were saying goodbye to one another.” Their actions persuaded the guards to let them through, but they were placed under arrest and kept in custody at a detention center at Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. On 1 April 2009, Park and her mother were sent to Ulaanbaatar’s Chinggis Khaan Airport to fly them to Seoul. Park felt relieved to be free at last; the Daily Telegraph reported, "'Oh my God,' she thought when Mongolian customs officials waved her through. 'They didn’t stop me.'”[1]

South Korea[edit]

Park Yeon-mi, in 2014

Park and her mother had difficulty adjusting to their new lives in South Korea, but they managed to find jobs as shop assistants and waitresses. Park also continued her education in Dongguk University in Seoul.[1][16] In April 2014, South Korean intelligence informed Park that her sister, Eunmi, had escaped to South Korea via China and Thailand. Park and her mother eventually reunited with Eunmi.[1]

United States[edit]

Park moved to New York City in 2014 to complete her memoir while expanding her role as an activist. She published her memoir in 2015 where she shared her journey from defection to higher education. She attended classes at Barnard College and then applied and was accepted to the Columbia University School of General Studies, starting there in the Fall 2016 semester. As of November 2016, she was majoring in economics.[17]

Activism and reception[edit]

Park Yeon-mi speaking at the 2018 Oslo Freedom Forum

Since escaping, Park has written and spoken publicly about her life in North Korea, has written for the Washington Post, and has been interviewed by The Guardian and for the Australian public affairs show Dateline.[18][19][11] Park volunteers for such activist programs as the Freedom Factory Corporation,[18] a free-market think tank in South Korea.

Park has also become a member of LiNK (Liberty in North Korea), a U.S. nonprofit organization that rescues North Korean refugees hiding in China and resettles them in South Korea and the United States. On June 12–15, 2014, Park attended LiNK’s summit at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Park and North Korean activists Joo Yang and Seongmin Lee worked in sessions and labs, informing participants of conditions in North Korea and of how LiNK can support refugees from North Korea. Park took part in LiNK’s campaign, the Jangmadang (장마당).

Park has also been outspoken about tourism in North Korea, as visitors are encouraged to bow to statues of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, which she sees as "[aiding] the regime’s propaganda by allowing themselves to be portrayed as if they too love and obey the leader."[20] She was selected as one of the BBC 100 Women in 2014 and is a member of the Helena Group.[21][22]

Park worked as a co-host for Casey Lartigue, a talk show host of the podcast-show North Korea Today. The podcast discusses North Korean topics and the lives of refugees after their escapes. Park volunteered for this opportunity to further her activism. Together, Lartigue and Park hosted five episodes of the podcast.[23]

Park has told the story of her escape at several well-known events, including TEDx in Bath, the One Young World summit in Dublin,[3] and the Oslo Freedom Forum.[3] Some commentators have noted inconsistencies in her North Korean stories.[24][25][26] Mary Ann Jolley of The Diplomat has noted minor discrepancies to contradictory refutations on several occasions. In an online update, Park said that many of the inconsistencies in her quotations came from her limited English skills at the time, adding that, too, "[her] childhood memories were not perfect."[15] 38 North has noted that some critics, including other North Korean refugees, have accused Park of embellishing her accounts or appropriating elements from others' escape stories.[27]

At an April 26, 2021 speaking engagement at Texas Tech University,[28] Park stated that speech afflicting the North Korean Supreme Leader is now a crime in South Korea, a fact reflected in South Korea’s passing of an amendment to the “Inter-Korean Relations Development Act” prohibiting South Koreans from sending, amongst other things, anti-Pyongyang leaflets, auxiliary storage devices (e.g., USB drives), and money or other monetary benefits to North Korea.[29][30][31]

Personal life[edit]

Park and her American ex-husband Ezekiel have one child together, a son.[32] In her YouTube, she says she is now single and has grown apart from her partner.[33]


Park believes that there are positive and negative possibilities for North Korea to be reunified with South Korea. She believes that there are neither northerners nor southerners in Korea, just Koreans themselves.[3]

Park believes that change might occur in North Korea as long as she and the other North Korean defectors continue to be an advocate for human rights in North Korea. According to the National Review, Park presumes that “the regime adjusts, as the Chinese Communists and the Vietnamese Communists have done. That would allow the North Korean Communists to hang on for untold years longer.”[16] Therefore, the Kims would be able to focus on their people, and then, they would be able to become more open to the world. Park also believes that the Jangmadang, the Black Market of North Korea, will transform or develop the country's society, because it provides wide access to outside news media and information. According to Park, "If I ever return to a reformed North Korea, I will be thrilled to meet my peers as we attempt to bring wealth and freedom to people who were forced into poverty by the Kim family dynasty".[34]

Park considers Kim Jong-un to be a cruel leader for continuing the abuse of his own people. She has said that "He is a criminal. He is killing people there. After he got the power, he killed 80 people in one day for watching a movie or reading the Bible. This young man is so cruel. He ordered that people who attempt escape should be shot".[35] On the subject, Andrei Lankov, one of the world’s leading authorities on North Korea, said "I am very, very skeptical whether watching a Western movie would lead to an execution. An arrest for such action is possible indeed, but still not very likely." More ambiguously, another defector said, “How can you be executed for watching an American film? It sounds ridiculous even saying it. That has never happened before," but went on to say that people who were caught watching South Korean dramas were not executed, but were sentenced to three to seven years in a correctional center where the treatment was horrendous: “You don’t know when you will die,” she said.[36]


  • Park, Yeonmi; Vollers, Maryanne (29 September 2015). In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN 978-0-698-40936-1. OCLC 921419691.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Phillips, Tom (October 10, 2014). "Escape from North Korea: 'How I escaped horrors of life under Kim Jong-il'". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2015-09-18.
  2. ^ ""Kim Jong Un doesn't like me at all," says 21-year-old defector from North Korea". Retrieved 2015-09-18.
  3. ^ a b c d Gupta, Priyanka. "Escaping North Korea: one refugee's story". Retrieved 2015-09-25.
  4. ^ "Video by Higher Perspective". Higher Perspective (facebook). 12 March 2017. Retrieved 2017-03-13.
  5. ^ Park, Yeonmi; Vollers, Maryanne (29 September 2015). In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN 978-0-698-40936-1. OCLC 921419691.
  6. ^ "The Strange Tale of Yeonmi Park - A high-profile North Korean defector has harrowing stories to tell. But are they true?". The Diplomat. 10 December 2014. Retrieved 13 May 2021. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  7. ^ "Summit Speaker — Yeonmi Park - Liberty in North Korea". Retrieved 2015-09-25.
  8. ^ Saunders, Josh (2020-05-31). "North Korea emboldened: How Chinese gangs help and prop up Kim Jong-un's rogue state". The Express. Archived from the original on 2020-11-29. Retrieved 2020-12-23. There she was at the mercy of a restaurant owner who exploited her and when she tried to escape instructed a gang to pursue her – they were instructed to either kill her or have her deported.
  9. ^ Majumder, Bhaswati Guha (2020-06-01). "Who Is Park Eunmi? North Korean Woman Smuggled Herself to China in Search of Better Future". International Business Times. Archived from the original on 2020-10-01. Retrieved 2020-12-23. Park Eunmi, is one such defectors who had spent several years in hiding after she smuggled herself across the North Korean border into China and now she has revealed how barbaric gangs in China play a crucial role in exploiting defectors.
  10. ^ Engel, Richard; Werner, Kennett (February 26, 2018). "Yeonmi Park's long journey from North Korea to Chicago" NBC News.
  11. ^ a b Jolley, Mary Anne (2014-09-03). "Celebrity Defector: Speaking out against North Korea". Dateline. Archived from the original on 2020-05-08. Retrieved 2020-12-23.
  12. ^ Hakim, Danny (2014-10-25). "The World's Dissidents Have Their Say". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-09-25.
  13. ^ Vollers, Maryanne (March 15, 2015). "The woman who faces the wrath of North Korea". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-09-25.
  14. ^ Cussen, John (2016-09-15). "On the Call to Dismiss North Korean Defectors' Memoirs and on Their Dark American Alternative". Korean Studies. University of Hawaii Press. 40 (1): 140–157. doi:10.1353/ks.2016.0005. ISSN 1529-1529. S2CID 163985007 – via Project MUSE.
  15. ^ a b c Mary Ann, Jolley (December 10, 2014). "The Strange Tale of Yeonmi Park". The Diplomat.
  16. ^ a b Nordlinger, Jay (November 17, 2015). "Witness from Hell". National Review. Retrieved 2015-09-25.
  17. ^ "One Student's Journey from North Korea to Columbia University". November 15, 2016.
  18. ^ a b Crocker, Lizzie (October 31, 2014). "How 'Titanic 'Helped This Brave Young Woman Escape North Korea's Totalitarian State". The Daily Beast. Retrieved November 1, 2014.
  19. ^ Park, Yeon-mi; Shearlaw, Maeve (October 29, 2014). "The North Korean defector who continues to defy regime – live Q&A as it happened". The Guardian. Retrieved November 1, 2014.
  20. ^ Thompson, Nathan A. "The Ethics of Taking a Trip to North Korea as a Tourist". NBC News. Retrieved 3 November 2014.
  21. ^ "Who are the 100 Women 2014?". BBC. 26 October 2014. Retrieved 4 December 2016.
  22. ^ "Helena Group Members". Helena Group Foundation. 2017.
  23. ^ "North Korea Today: Featuring Casey and Yeonmi". Retrieved 2015-09-25.
  24. ^ Richard Murray (2017). "Reporting on the impossible: The use of defectors in covering North Korea (page 4)" (PDF). Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics.
  25. ^ John Power (2015-01-21). "Celebrated Korean gulag defector changes story. Does that change the truth?". Christian Science Monitor. ISSN 0882-7729. Retrieved 2020-12-18.
  26. ^ Barbara Miller (September 4, 2017). "North Korean defector stories find home in the South on reality TV show". ABC News.
  27. ^ "When North Koreans Go South, Some Go Professional". 38 North. 2015-06-25. Retrieved 2020-05-08.
  28. ^ "FMI Public Speaker Series Featuring North Korean Defector Yeonmi Park". Events@Rawls. Retrieved 2021-05-03.
  29. ^ "In Order to live". 38 North. 2021-04-26. Retrieved 2021-04-26.
  30. ^ "South Korea: Scrap Bill Shielding North Korean Government". Human Rights Watch. 2020-12-05. Retrieved 2021-05-03.
  31. ^ "North Korean defector group claims to have sent leaflets at border in defiance of new law". ABC News. 2021-04-30. Retrieved 2021-05-03.
  32. ^ Huddleston Jr., Tom (August 20, 2018). "This woman escaped North Korea at 13 — these are her lessons on perseverance". CNBC.
  33. ^ [1].YouTube.
  34. ^ "North Korea's best hope". Retrieved 13 May 2017.
  35. ^ Gupta, Priyanka (15 October 2014). "Escaping North Korea: one refugee's story". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 13 May 2017.
  36. ^ "The Strange Tale of Yeonmi Park". Retrieved 2021-04-16.

External links[edit]