This weekend at Yale, North Korean defector Park Yeonmi shared her story of struggle, frustration — and resilience.
At a lecture and discussion held by the undergraduate group Yale for North Korean Human Rights in conjunction with the United States Military Academy at West Point, 22-year-old Park stood in Davies Auditorium Saturday afternoon and advocated for awareness and action against ongoing human rights abuses in North Korea. Although American interest and involvement remains low due to the current focus on issues in the Middle East, Park said, she strongly believes students and politicians alike can work on small scales to increase awareness and effect change. Park’s appearance marked the first formal collaboration between Yale and West Point on North Korean human rights.
“It is rare to escape; it is rarer to escape to America,” Park said. “I am ridiculously lucky. And I realized that in order to be free, as a price for my freedom, I would have to tell my story.”
During her years in North Korea, Park lived in a normal middle-class family, with a peaceful life. Park noted that in North Korea there are only three classes: the elites in the south; “the wavering class,” the middle class found elsewhere in the north; and the bottom class, also found in the north. The bottom class lives in extreme poverty, and the middle class is just that: right in-between the worst possible existence and the best. Moreover, when the North Korean government imposed a ration cut in the early 2000s, the elites — centered in Pyongyang — did not suffer. The middle and bottom classes, however, suffered a loss of 3 million people over the course of three years due to starvation.
Park and her mother left North Korea for China in 2007. There, for fear of being sent back to North Korea, they allowed themselves to be sold into sex trafficking. In 2009, they escaped through the Gobi Desert to South Korea. Park now studies economics at Columbia University.
Park described how education in North Korea focuses on propaganda and misinformation. North Korean schools teach children only about the existence of North Korea, China, an allegedly imperialist Japan, San Francisco and somewhat about South Korea. Before escaping in 2009, Park did not even know Africa existed, and the little she was taught about South Korea held that it was colonized by the United States. Only thanks to their “Dear Leader,” formerly Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un, was North Korea free from American rule, Park added.
“The brainwashing is very deep,” said Park. “A lot of people are very brainwashed, especially the older generation. Someone had to tell me the truth, in private, before I knew.”
Open dissent and internal movements toward revolution stand unthinkable, she added. According to Park, a North Korean citizen can face immediate individual sentencing to labor camps or execution, in addition to sentencing of his or her families, for so much as improperly folding a printed piece of propaganda.
Attendees of the event all noted the need for an increase in awareness and exposure. Peter Han ’17, a visiting student from South Korea, emphasized a sense of responsibility and a hope for change.
“I feel there is a responsibility to know what’s going on, especially in the U.S.,” said Han. “The U.S. should get involved. This is human rights. This is universal. That is why this deserves much attention.”
Han also noted that the issue of North Korea’s human rights violations is now becoming more prominent in the political sphere, especially among young intellectuals. Han said he hopes this trend increases interest among Yale students as well.
Malina Simard-Halm ’18, Co-President of Yale for North Korean Human Rights and an organizer of the event, shared Han’s sentiments and added that the situation in North Korea is one of the most alarming and most egregious human rights cases in the world. Because of the severity, Simard-Halm said, Yale students should be aware of and care about the problems at hand.
“[Our organization] wants to engage the military community, Yale student community and a civil-military relationship,” she told the News. “We wanted to bring two schools together that care deeply about these issues but bring different perspectives to the table.”
Stephen Mettler ’18, another organizer for this event, said a major end goal would be to get the knowledge out there about stories like Park’s. He said the Yale community needs to be more aware of events not only outside the Yale bubble, but outside the America bubble as well. He said he was excited to have Park come back again after last year’s College Freedom Forum — a human rights conference co-hosted by Yale for North Korean Human Rights — and share her story once more.
Both Mettler and Park said students might feel powerless in the face of an uninvolved federal government, and feel like there is no real way to contribute. However, even if the American federal government does not do much, they said, seemingly smaller measures such as spreading the message, and educating students and the public at large about the groups making change in North Korea, allows everyone to have a part.
Students from West Point interviewed said the collaboration is part of an attempt at West Point to diversify the academy.
“We are all Korean Americans, so we feel we should use our diversity to better serve as an American soldier,” said Ellen Cho, a junior at West Point, in reference to the contingent of Korean American West Point students who attended the conference. “Identity helps shape the importance of this event.”
Several students from both Yale and West Point said this weekend’s event may lead to many more collaborations between the two institutions.