BOOK REVIEW: Yeonmi Park, In Order to Live (Penguin Publishers, Sept. 2015)
“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
This is a quote by Frederick Douglass, but you would be forgiven for thinking it belonged to Yeonmi Park, whose remarkable book In Order to Live is both a riveting and important read. In telling her life story, the 22-year-old North Korean refugee reveals an ability to endure countless abuses and finds purpose as a truth-telling menace to the totalitarian Kim regime.
Frederick Douglass quotes often rang in my mind while reading this book, reminding me of how I first encountered Yeonmi. As she explains in the last chapters of In Order to Live, after finally arriving to a safe new life in South Korea, Yeonmi became a voracious reader and star pupil within an English languages class taught by the one-of-a-kind Casey Lartigue. I say that Casey is one of a kind because I simply know of no other Harvard-educated black Texan libertarian who has dedicated himself to the plight of North Korean defectors.
Casey had been involved in the past with the Frederick Douglass Society in Washington, D.C., and has explained to me the parallel he sees between these cross-cultural struggles for freedom. The end of slavery was hastened when escaped slaves began telling the stories about their years in captivity. It had been easy for northerners to ignore an abstract and remote problem, but you cannot so easily dismiss the story of an oppressed person standing in front of you. My organization, Atlas Network, began hosting Yeonmi Park as a speaker at Casey’s request, and for the same reason. The human rights abuses of North Korea are appalling, and those who cherish their own freedoms must not turn a blind eye to the plight of North Koreans. Our words can have power. As it becomes harder for the Kim regime to maintain its information blockade, more North Koreans are becoming aware of the brutal and pervasive injustice surrounding them — and the perceived moral authority of the dictator is waning.
Given Yeonmi’s eloquence as a speaker, I should not have been surprised by the quality of her book, which was coauthored with Maryanne Vollers — but I was startled by its vivid portrayal of Yeonmi’s arduous personal journey through the stark contrast of tyranny and freedom.
The opening chapters depict the surreal nature of day-to-day life in North Korea, the smuggling and trading that occurs out of simple necessity along with the fear of government authority that pervades every facet of life and keeps these economic activities hidden from view. The book explains how sharply her life changed when her father was arrested for activities that would make him an entrepreneur almost anywhere else, rather than a criminal. Yeonmi then chronicles parts of her life that she had kept quiet in the past — namely, the abuses she endured after leaving North Korea, as a 13-year-old caught up in China’s human trafficking underground.
The dream of reuniting her family sustained her through brutal physical challenges, such as following the stars through the Gobi desert during the final leg of her escape from China, and emotional trials like the shock of adjusting to a modern society that looked down upon refugees. Yeonmi’s candor instills the book with an extra dimension, providing clarity and insight into how she grew into the person she is today, mature beyond her years.
Some early passages attest to the depth of the brainwashing she received, such as a moment of confusion when her father scoffed at a piece of propaganda about the Dear Leader — an expression of scorn toward the regime that, to her, had been simply “unthinkable.” Her mother warned her to toe the line, and trust no one — not even the mice and birds — with her private thoughts.
But cracks in this totalitarian system would reveal themselves. At age 11, Yeonmi got a “tiny taste of freedom” selling persimmons: “I learned something important from my short time as a market vendor: once you start trading for yourself, you start thinking for yourself. Before the public distribution system collapsed, the government alone decided who would survive and who would starve. The markets took away the government’s control. My small market transactions made me realize that I had some control over my own fate.”
Elsewhere, you see Yeonmi open her understandably guarded heart and come to understand the complexity of human nature. A man named Hongwei, who purchased her in China for $260, repeatedly abused her but came to be partly redeemed in her eyes by later acts of selflessness. She briefly references a sad, lonely regular in her chat room who became her benefactor, paying costs for her final escape out of China.
By the end, Yeonmi helps us re-experience the wonder of life in a free society, with its modern conveniences. “I had seen modern toilets in China, but this was incomprehensible,” she wrote of a shiny public restroom at the airport in Seoul. “The bowls were so shiny and clean, I thought that was where you washed your hands.”
As a reader, you can’t help but be humbled by how much we take for granted in our daily lives, and how much evil continues to be perpetrated by tyrants — in North Korea and elsewhere. You will also be struck by how fast Yeonmi turned into an international sensation, diligently watching episodes of Friends to master English in 2013 and bringing audiences to tears at international symposia a year later.
The voice of Frederick Douglass echoed through his time and beyond, changing the public view of the South’s “peculiar institution” of slavery so that it became universally recongnized as evil.
Yeonmi Park has the same potential to turn the attention of those who cherish freedom toward the plight of the victims of the Kim regime in North Korea. If Douglass was right that the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress, Kim Jong-un may have met his match in Yeonmi Park, now living in New York City and serving as a fellow of the Human Rights Foundation. The implied message of her book is that it is now up to all of us to spread her message of freedom, and to end the world’s complacency over the plight of North Koreans.
- Learn more about Yeonmi Park's book In Order to Live.