Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Reflections on the book "In Order to Live"

One of the things I enjoy doing during Christmas break is reading for pleasure. Our school library just got in the book "In Order to Live" by Yeonmi Park and I was the first recipient of it.  Published in 2015, Ms. Park recounts the experiences she had as a child living in North Korea, the desperation that led her and her mother to cross to nearby China, the horrific things they had to suffer while in China, then the journey to Mongolia and then to life in South Korea.
Living in a city that as Yeonmi pointed out is only 35 miles from the border with North Korea, and also having visited the DMZ, I read the book with particular interest. What totally different lives our northern neighbors experience. At the time of her fleeing in 2007 at the age of 13, Park described life in her northern town where electricity was rare, starvation and malnutrition were rampant, where bodies were stacked in the hospital courtyard until there were at least 7 to remove, and everyone lived in constant fear of being revealed to the authorities (leading to labor/reeducation camps, devastation of income/jobs, execution) - sometimes by neighbors or even family members.
Certain starvation led Yeonmi and her mom to cross the frozen river to China, just two weeks after her appendix was removed. There, they experienced the fate of all too many (70%) North Korean females that make it to China - human trafficking and rape. As Beijing prepared for the Olympics, women were being sold for as little as $200, many to families of Chinese men who were looking for brides (or slaves), due to the uneven male/female ration - particularly in rural areas. Fear of being discovered by authorities and being sent back to North Korea weighed constantly on their minds.

After walking in winter through the Gobi Desert and escaping to Mongolia with the help of Christian missionaries, they finally made it to safety. But many struggles lay ahead, including long interrogation (even when arriving in South Korea), the education system (Yeonmi had only gotten a 2nd grade education in North Korea), trying to fit in, coping with modern society, simply living in a place you were told was the enemy, and not knowing the whereabouts of her older sister who had also intended to escape to China. Just learning how to think for herself was a challenge. When reading the book Animal Farm, Yeonmi "felt as if Orwell knew where I was from and what I had been through. The animal farm was really North Korea, and he was describing my life. I saw my family in the animals...I was one of the new pigs with no ideas."

At first, Yeonmi tried to hide her North Korean past in order to cope, receive employment, and to just fit in. Pieces were revealed later when she pursued a college education in law. It was only after her invitation to the One Young World Summit in Dublin that she began to reveal some of her more hidden wounds.

She told the audience there how "North Korea is an unimaginable country...where you could be executed for making an illegal international phone call" and described how her mother told her not to whisper as a child, because even the birds and mice could hear her. She also revealed witnessing her mother being raped by a Chinese broker who had targeted her, on the very day they escaped North Korea.

After that speech, she realized she must reveal more. "How could I ask people to face the truth about North Korea, to face the truth about what happens to the women who escape into China and fall into the hands of brokers and rapists, if I didn't face it myself?" Through the urging of her mother, Yeonmi decided to write her story and become the voice for so many North Korean victims. The act, while painful, provided needed catharsis for Park, still in her early 20's.

Readers of this book will gain insight into life in North Korea, the horrors that many face even when successfully escaping to China, and the challenges even those who make it to freedom still must encounter. It is also a story of survival and triumph.

No comments: