Yeonmi Park is a 23-year-old North Korean defector and human rights activist, born and raised in North Korea before escaping to China at the age of 13. She grew up under the oppressive regime of Kim Jong Il with little access to the outside world.
Now, Park lives in the United States, where she advocates for North Korean refugees. She has written several books and gives talks about her childhood experiences. In the book In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, Park describes her memories of growing up and eventually escaping her home country.
The following excerpt from this book details Park’s childhood in North Korea.
North Koreans have two stories running in their heads at all times, like trains on parallel tracks. One is what you are taught to believe; the other is what you see with your own eyes. It wasn’t until I escaped to China in 2007 and read a translation of George Orwell’s 1984 that I found a word for this peculiar condition: doublethink. This is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time — and somehow not go crazy.
This “doublethink” is how you can shout slogans denouncing capitalism in the morning, then browse through the market in the afternoon to buy smuggled South Korean cosmetics.
It is how you can believe that North Korea is a socialist paradise, the best country in the world with the happiest people who have nothing to envy, while devouring movies and TV programs that show ordinary people in enemy nations enjoying a level of prosperity that you couldn’t imagine in your dreams.
It is how you can sit in Hyesan watching propaganda videos showing productive factories, supermarkets stocked with food, and well-dressed people in amusement parks and believe you are living on the same planet as your government leaders.
It is how you can recite the motto “Children Are King” in school, then walk past the orphanage where children with bloated bellies stare at you with hungry eyes.
Maybe deep, deep inside me I knew something was wrong. But we North Koreans can be experts at lying, even to ourselves. The frozen babies that starving mothers abandoned in the alleys did not fit into my worldview, so I couldn’t process what I saw. It was normal to see bodies in the trash heaps, bodies floating in the river, normal to just walk by and do nothing when a stranger cried for help.
There are images I can never forget. Late one afternoon, my sister and I found the body of a young man lying beside a pond. It was a place where people went to fetch water, and he must have dragged himself there to drink. He was naked and his eyes were staring and his mouth wide open in an expression of terrible suffering. I had seen many dead bodies before, but this was the most horrible and frightening of all, because his insides were coming out where something — maybe dogs — had ripped him open. I was so embarrassed for him, lying there stripped of his clothes and his dignity. I could not bear to look at him, so I grabbed my sister’s hand and we ran home.
My mother tried to help people when she could. Homeless wanders would sometimes knock on our door to beg for food. I remember one young woman who brought her daughter to our house. “I’m so cold, so hungry,” she said. “But if you give me food, I’ll let my baby eat.” My mother understood that feeling because she had young children, too. She invited them inside and gave them both plates of food. I watched them closely, because the daughter was nearly my age. They were very polite, and ate delicately even though they were starving. I wonder often if they survived, and if they are still in North Korea.
There were so many desperate people on the streets crying for help that you had to shut off your heart or the pain would be too much. After a while you can’t care anymore. And that is what hell is like.
Almost everybody I knew lost family in the famine. The youngest and oldest died first. Then the men, who had fewer reserves than women. Starving people wither away until they can no longer fight off disease, or the chemicals in their blood become so unbalanced that their hearts forget to beat.
My own family suffered, too, as our fortune rose and fell like a cork in the ocean. In 1999, my father was running a business using trucks to smuggle metals out of Pyongyang, but there were too many expenses to pay drivers and buy gasoline, too many checkpoints and too many bribes to pay, so he ended up losing all of his money. My mother took me and my sister with her to live with her relatives in Kowon, about 230 kilometers away from Pyongyang, for a few months while my father made up his losses.
We arrived in Kowon to find that my mother’s family was also struggling to survive. Grandfather Byeon had died a few years earlier, and my grandmother was living with her older son in the family home. Her youngest son, who had been imprisoned years earlier for stealing from the state, was visiting them as well. In the labor camp he had caught tuberculosis, which was very common in North Korea. Now that there was so little food to go around, he was sick all the time and wasting away.
My grandmother had taken in lots of neighborhood children, and in order to make sure everybody else was fed, she ate only a tiny bit of food each day. She worried that she was a burden, even though she consumed so little and her bones were as light as a bird’s.
I loved my little grandmother Hwang with her wooden leg. She never got upset with me, even when I cried and pestered her to carry me on her back like a horse. She always smiled at me and she was a wonderful storyteller; I would sit with her for hours as she told me about her childhood in the South. She described a beautiful island off the Southern coast called Jeju, where women divers can hold their breath for a long time and swim like fish while they gather food from the bottom of the sea.
I as so curious when she described the wide blue ocean to me, and the playful dolphins that lived there. I had never seen an ocean or heard of such a thing as a dolphin. Once I asked her, “Grandma, what is the biggest thing in the world?” She told me it was the whale that breathes in air from a hole in its back and makes a fountain come out. I had never even seen pictures of whales, but they sounded like something I would like.
Most of her stories were from the time of Chosun, when there was no North or South Korea, only one country, one people. She told me we had the same culture and shared the same traditions as the South. She also told me a little bit about the time she visited Seoul, although even saying the name was forbidden in North Korea. You just didn’t mention such an evil place. I knew it existed only from propaganda, newspaper articles describing anti-imperialist demonstrations by its oppressed masses. But somehow my grandmother planted deep inside me a curiosity about this place she had loved. She told me, “come to my grave someday, and tell me that the North and South are reunited.”
It was a sad time to visit Kowon; because of the famine, so many people were dying. My grandmother took a lot of medicines, some opium for the pains of old age and other pills to help her sleep and forget the suffering around her. One morning before I went out to play, I saw her take lots of her medicine, much more than usual.
“Grandma, why are you taking so much medicine?” I asked.
She was very calm and smiled at me. “Grandma just wants to have a good sleep,” she said. “She needs a good rest.”
Later that afternoon, I heard a terrible sound coming from the house. It was my uncle calling my grandmother’s name. We ran inside and he was shaking her in her bed, wailing, “Wake up! Wake up! Answer me!”
But she was lying there peacefully, and no matter how loud my uncle shouted, she could no longer hear him.
A few months later, my uncle would also be dead. Sometimes I can still hear his voice, screaming for his mother, begging her to wake up. These are some of the things I wish I could forget, but I know I never will.
From In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Yeonmi Park, 2015.
First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.