Twenty-five-year-old human rights activist and North Korean defector Yeonmi Park is fast becoming a leading voice of oppressed people around the world.
At the 2014 Oslo Freedom Forum and the One Young World Summit in Dublin, she became an international phenomenon, delivering passionate and deeply personal speeches about the brutality of the North Korean regime. Her address to One Young World on the horrors of detention camps, political executions, and sex trafficking has been viewed over 320 million times on YouTube. Park’s escape from North Korea has given the world a window into the lives of its people. In 2017, Park joined the Tory Burch Foundation’s Embrace Ambition campaign, a global effort to dispel the double standard of ambition as a positive trait in men and a negative trait in women.
Born in Hyesan, North Korea, Yeonmi grew up in a society devoted to the worship of Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il and hatred for enemies of his regime. It was normal for Park to see dead bodies as she walked to school and to be so hungry she ate wild plants. After watching a pirated copy of the film Titanic, the veil of tyranny began to fall. Yeonmi had caught a glimpse of a free world that one day she would yearn to join.
In 2002, Yeonmi’s family suffered a crucial blow. Her father, who smuggled gold, nickel, and silver before being caught, was tortured and sentenced to 10 years in a forced labor camp. After his early release on medical leave, the family decided they had to flee North Korea, but became separated before they could escape together. In 2007, Yeonmi and her mother crossed a frozen river into China, hiding from Chinese authorities who would return them to North Korea. Two years later, they reached the Mongolian border and spent a freezing night in the Gobi Desert, dodging patrols and crawling through barbed wire to seek refuge to South Korea. Yeonmi’s searing memoir about her escape, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, was released in the fall 2015.
Yeonmi has taken it upon herself to tell the story of millions, urging the world to recognize the oppressed people of Kim Jong-Un’s reign. She believes that change will come through young people like herself, whose exposure to capitalism and Western media is eroding the authority of the Kim dynasty.
Currently a student at Columbia University, Yeonmi has published an op-ed about North Korea’s “Black Market Generation” in the Washington Post, and has been featured on CNN, CNBC, and the BBC, as well as in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. She serves on the board of directors of the Human Rights Foundation.