I have been wanting to read Yeonmi Park’s memoir In Order to Live ever since I saw her speech about her escape from North Korea in 2014. Even though China is the main focus of my life and work, I have written before about how closely entwined the history of North Korea and China are. And, come to that, much Korean history is tied to America as well. Korea is a divided nation today because of the actions of America after WWII, so this is something I have worked to educate myself about. As such, I have read many memoirs by North Korean defectors. If you haven’t seen Park’s 2014 speech, I highly encourage you to do so now.
Even though I have read many other memoirs, In Order to Live was particularly interesting. Most memoirs are by authors who are a bit older, who survived the 1994-1998 famine. And indeed, that is when the first great mass exodus from North Korea began. But I think that many people assume that North Korea is “better” today, that there is more freedom, more jobs, and more food. Park fled North Korea in 2007, nearly a decade after the famine, and she was still starving to death. North Korea is just as bad today as it was twenty years ago.
What further makes Park’s memoir compelling is the harrowing story of what happened after she arrived in China. Instead of protecting refugees, China has a policy of returning North Korean defectors to North Korea, most of whom end up in concentration camps until they die. As such, most North Koreans in China suffer at the hands of traffickers, rapists, and others who would exploit them until they can find a way to escape to another country that will give them asylum and help them relocate to South Korea. But even past safe havens such as Mongolia or Cambodia are turning against South Koreans, returning them to China where they once again must live underground until they can try to escape again.
Park’s memoir, and many others like it, should be necessary reading for anyone who wants to know what is happening outside America’s borders, especially when refugees are such a hot topic in American politics today. Refugees aren’t coming for your jobs or to commit crimes or to live off your taxes. They are just doing whatever they can In Order to Live.