Originally published on Nov. 13, 2015
"I didn't know what freedom was," says Yeonmi Park, author of In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom. "I didn't even know the word. I didn't know the concept. I never heard of that word, 'freedom'. To me, the happiest thing was having food."
Yeonmi's story begins with her first steps out of North Korea on March 31, 2007. She crossed the frozen Yalu River with her mother in the dead of night, arriving in China with only a vague idea what to do next. She was only thirteen years old. It was the beginning of a harrowing, years-long journey that would take her across China, through the vast Gobi desert, all the way to the Mongolian border, before finally reaching South Korea by plane.
It took exceptional strength of character for Yeonmi to survive the journey. Living outside of the law, she was subjected to constant abuse; starvation and suicide were rarely far away. Her father crossed the border to join her, but he died of untreated cancer a few months later.
"My father died without knowing even this kind of democracy exists in the world," she told Reason TV. "He didn't even know this much food was available in the world. And if I could've had the things that Americans throw away, I never would've escaped North Korea. That's how much we were desperate."
Yeonmi Park's survival story has captivated thousands of readers and propelled her into the spotlight around the world. But how much of it is true?
Pyongyang has produced a lengthy video that attempts to discredit key parts of story. In melodramatic fashion, "Park Yeon Mi, The Puppet of the Human Rights Plot" vilifies Yeonmi and her mother, accusing them of being agents of the United States. Doubters have emerged from outside North Korea, as well, calling her a "celebrity defector". Critics say they've found discrepancies in her life story and inaccuracies in her depiction of her native country.
For her part, Yeonmi insists on the truth of her story. Some details, she says, were changed to protect family members still living in North Korea. Other events, such as the sexual abuse she endured during her defection, have been shrouded in shame. "I had a reason to hide my secret," she told Reason TV. "I didn't want to admit I was raped when I was thirteen years old." She has attributed other misstatements to her poor command of the English language.
As compelling as her story is, the stakes couldn't be higher for the community of tens of thousands of North Korean refugees worldwide. Any exaggeration of the facts threatens to undermine their own narratives of widespread human rights abuses and political persecution. Their cause depends on the credibility of stories that are locked inside the world's most secretive nation, making them difficult, and sometimes impossible, to verify.
"I know the truth of North Korea," Yeonmi said. "The oppression and their tragedy. It cannot be silenced."
Produced by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Josh Swain.