From the earth’s darkest corner

It is all about nukes. Ahead of the “now on, now off” summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, we hear politicians, experts and TV anchors discuss “denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula, struggling not to mispronounce it. But, a lone whisper from a slender young North Korean dissents: “It should be about people. North Korea is a concentration camp, and our citizens must be freed.”

But, as a 13-year old, Yeonmi Park herself escaped North Korea not in search of freedom, but for a bowl of rice. Her politically well-connected father was arrested for illegal trading, and sentenced to hard labour. North Korea’s economic collapse and famine resulted in widespread starvation. So severe were Yeonmi’s hunger pains that the local doctor misdiagnosed it as appendicitis and performed surgery without anaesthesia—the hospital did not have any. “My pains continued and I was without an appendix,” she says with gentle humour. Yeonmi is now 24, lives in New York, married to an American engineer, has a three-month old son and is studying at Columbia University. Yeonmi’s harrowing life story is a more compelling fairytale than Meghan Markle’s.

Yeonmi—who looks like a delicate Japanese doll—was attending the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual celebration of global dissidence. Her exquisite beauty, flawless porcelain skin, thoughtful comments, droll humour, child-like innocence, demure mannerism and stylish clothes completely belie her past. She describes her homeland as “the darkest corner on earth”. Not just metaphorically, but literally. Beyond the river in her hometown, Hyesan, beckoned a realm of dazzling lights and plenty—China. This promised land tantalised with its bowls of rice. A thriving trade in human smuggling flourished, and one day it was her family’s turn to cross the frozen river. Thus began a journey into hell.

Illustration: Bhaskaran

The Chinese broker who “bought” them raped her mother in front of her eyes— twice. He paid $60 for her mother and $200 for her as she was a child virgin. But, she did not remain one for long. She, too, was raped and became a sex slave. Eventually, South Korean missionaries helped them. “Earlier, it was Dear Leader; now Jesus was our saviour,” she says with a wry smile. The missionaries gave her North Korean group a compass. With that and little else, they walked across the Gobi Desert into Mongolia, and then to South Korea, and, finally, into the United States. When she first appeared on the world stage at an event in Dublin in 2014, she moved the audience to tears. The video went viral with millions of viewers.

Yeonmi has been trolled by North Korean and Chinese groups, and there are inconsistencies in her early narratives. She attributes them to language barriers, imperfect childhood memories and shame about disclosing gory details. Incredibly, Yeonmi bears no scars at all—neither physical nor psychological, unlike Marina Nemat, another rape victim who escaped from her Iranian tormentors and now lives in Canada. Nemat confides: “I have a wonderful husband and two sons who are in their 20s. I have never loved them. I am unable to.”

Yeonmi is loving, calm and composed, smiling easily and spontaneously. But, she does not think Kim is a joke, despairing that lampooning the despot is a global pastime. “His haircut is funny,” she says. “He is fat. He is like a cartoon character. But, he is a murderer. Making fun of dictators is not enough. Why is it funny?” The only time she loses her composure is when she talks of her family still trapped in North Korea. She says: “I know my cousins are having a tough time. Maybe if the summit succeeds, I will be able to see them again. Nukes can wait. But, people die.”

Pratap is an author and journalist