I am a North Korean defector
Yeonmi Park speaking on SBS's Insight.
I lived in North Korea for the first 15 years of my life,
believing Kim Jong-il was a god. I never doubted it because I didn't
know anything else. I could not even imagine life outside of the regime.
It was like living in hell. There were constant power
outages, so everything was dark. There was no transportation – everyone
had to walk everywhere. It was very dirty and no one could eat anything.
It was not the right conditions for human life, but you
couldn't think about it, let alone complain about it. Even though you
were suffering, you had to worship the regime every day.
I had to be careful of my thoughts because I believed Kim
Jong-il could read my mind. Every couple of days someone would
disappear. A classmate's mother was punished in a public execution that I
was made to attend. I had no choice – there were spies in the
My father worked for the government, so for a while things
were relatively OK for me compared with some others in North Korea. But
my father was accused of doing something wrong and jailed for three
years. He being guilty made me guilty too, so whatever future I had in
North Korea completely disappeared. I could no longer go to university,
and my family was forced to move out of Pyongyang to the countryside on
the border close to China.
After a few years, my father became very sick with cancer and
he came out of jail for treatment. During this time, we decided to
leave North Korea.
We had to cross a frozen river in the middle of winter to
sneak across the border into China. I was very scared – not of being
caught but of being shot. If they see someone escaping, they don't ask,
they just shoot them.
North Korean refugees are not recognised in China, so we had
to be careful there. My parents brought a small amount of money with
them, and my mother got a job washing dishes. I did not know any Chinese
and couldn't say anything in Korean in case I was deported, so I had to
pretend I could not speak.
I hid in the apartment most of the time. If I saw a
policeman, I would run. I could not take a train because they would do
certification checks. It was really miserable.
My father died of cancer in that first year and soon we had
used all of our money. Around this time we met some South Korean
missionaries. They said we could finally be free if we could make it to
We didn't want to live in China without my father, but we
didn't have any money to pay for disguises to get us into South Korea,
so we bought a compass and we walked across the border between China and
Mongolia through the desert in winter. Once in Mongolia, we were
protected and some soldiers contacted South Korea where we were accepted
This whole time, I was still so brainwashed that I thought
Kim Jong-il could read my mind from afar. Even though I had escaped, I
wouldn't let myself think anything negative about the regime.
When we arrived in South Korea they took us to an Education
Centre for several months. I learned that Kim Jong-il was a dictator,
but I was still confused when I left – it wasn't enough time to fully
change my mind.
After I came out of the centre, I met new people, started to
study using the internet, and read lots of books. I found out about
socialism, communism and capitalism. I learned new things and finally
saw the truth.
I realised that everything I thought was a lie. I had not
been a real person – I was created for the regime to work for them. If
they ordered us to die, I would've died for them. I wasn't a human – I
was something else. I certainly wasn't treated like one. I knew nothing
of freedom. It took about three years to fully get over the
My mother took longer than me. When Kim Jong-il died she
couldn't believe it. We were in South Korea by then and she said, "he
can't die because he's not a human, he's a god!" It was very hard for
us to comprehend that he was just a human, but I helped my mother see
I'm now studying at university, learning about international
relations and I feel like a different person. When I was in North Korea,
no one asked me "what do you think?" "What do you want to be in
future?" "What do you dream?" I now have free will.
When I first got to South Korea, I could not understand why
my opinion was so important. Previously, my destiny was chosen for me.
But I feel like I'm the master of my life – I'm living now.
My older sister made it out recently and has just come out of
the Education Centre. I feel like I've got almost everything, because
my family is the most important thing to me.
But all my other relatives are still in North Korea. They are
too afraid to escape and I worry about them – not just because I'm from
North Korea, but just as a human. I now know that humans have rights
and I want to help them. That is my dream.