In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park (with Maryanne Vollers)

Eight stars

Shifting focus on this biography journey away from men with significant power, I wanted to find a piece that would not only educate, but also exemplify some of the struggles of the common person. That this is also a buddy read with a good friend of mine only adds to the interest when it was suggested I read this memoir by Yeonmi Park. Growing up in North Korea, Park offers the reader some history of the country and the autocratic Kim Family dynasty, some of which directly related to her own ancestors’ story. Thereafter, Park personalises the story to discuss her backstory, a life on the cusp of abject poverty and general servitude to the Great Country, which included a vignette about gathering an annual faeces quota to help with collective farming, alarming and yet somewhat humerous at times as well. After secretly paving the way to make an escape, Park and her mother cross a small tributary into China, where things are anything but manna from heaven. Supporting a policy of returning North Korean defectors, the Chinese are on the lookout for those who might have snuck across the border. Park explores the treachery that awaited her in China and a life that paralleled the agony of North Korea when she found herself being trafficked. It was only a firm motivation to make her way to South Korea that kept Yeonmi strong and prepared for freedom, a dream that Christian missionaries sought to fulfil. While many take freedom for granted, Park offers an interesting perspective of South Korean freedom, which might provide much sobriety for the reader. Full of tears and angst, Park does not coat her story with flowery tales and sing-song moments, while transitioning from the darkest corners of one country about which the world knows so little. A powerful piece that pulls on the heartstrings of all but the most detached readers, Park provides a degree of determination that no obstacle is insurmountable.

I went into this book sure that I would come out with a ton of information grounded in reality, not solely western propaganda seeking to kick the Kim family around and exploit their suppressive ways. To hear directly from one who has lived in these conditions and seen the horrors of starvation speaks volumes to me. I found myself needing to keep my academic hat firmly in place and remind myself that someone has synthesised this book before it went to print, even though Park professes to have a strong grip on the English language by the time she completed her draft. Adding layers of oppression and making the light of freedom look all the better will sell books, especially to complement the media reports of increased aggression and assassination of familial members, though part of me could not help but accept the stories that fill these pages as being more realistic than reserve-propaganda. Full of the dark sides that these types of stories have to offer, the reader must stomach death, neglect, rape, and even criticism of that which many of us take for granted. Park’s surprising openness about the problems with freedom should not be taken lightly by the reader, as she makes a strong case about the perils of removing those who had no choices and supersaturating them with options and pathways. The story was her own, but adding a familial element helped strengthen its delivery and permitted the reader to see how desperate some were to leave North Korea, that they would abandon family to pave the way towards a better life. An underlying theme of political ideology surely finds its way into the discussion, from the Korean War, Soviet-style communism, to the eventual isolated sentimentality that even Mao would not have recognised. One is left to wonder what would be best for North Koreans, especially since most appear less than truly happy, if one is to believe the accounts that Park offers herein. Should people be oppressed or live in a society that does not offer democracy for all citizens? That is up to the reader to decide, though Park provides wonderful insight to open a substantial debate.

Kudos, Madam Park for this honest portrayal of the pains of your motherland and trying to recalibrate in a society only too happy to pile on the criticism. You are monumentally strong for all you have seen and weathered. I hope you will provide a follow-up in the years to come.