For decades now, rumors have leaked like a sieve out of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea, about rampant and systemic abuses on the part of the government under the despotic leadership of Kim Jong-Il. Finally, no longer able to turn a blind eye or blind ear to the rumors, the UN tasked a special committee to investigate the mounting evidence against North Korea. In early 2014, the UN released the 400 page report that had been compiled. What it contained was an horrific laundry list of unbelievable atrocities, massive civil rights violations and outright crimes against humanity.
Some of the accusations leveled against the government were of citizens being sent to government run forced labor camps with no trial or due process of any kind for such offenses as watching soap operas or trying to feed their families. And those sent to the camps were the “lucky” ones. Many were simply executed on the spot for many of the same minor and petty offenses. Such claims would seem absolutely ridiculous if they weren’t backed up time and time again by witness after witness sharing personal testimony to the same types of incidents again and again.
One person who has seen firsthand the offenses of the North Korean government is North Korean civil rights activist Yeon-mi Park. At only 21 years of age, she has already seen more horror and atrocity than many Westerners will see in their entire lives – including those that enter war zones and have firsthand experience with the types of atrocities that war brings. While westerners may voluntarily choose to enter into a war-torn country and potentially even participate in fighting in battle, they do so with the knowledge that they always have a safe place to return to if they so choose. Not so the citizens of North Korea, who are trapped in an ongoing nightmare from which there is no escape.
Some choose to try and escape through China, but that too is not a guarantee of safety or freedom. For decades, the Chinese government has actively hunted refugees and sent them back to North Korea to face an even harsher fate than what they originally tried to escape from. Yeon-mi and her mother attempted escape through China, and while they were never discovered by authorities, their inability to seek the protection of civil authorities left them vulnerable and defenseless, dependent on the mercy of the Chinese. Unfortunately, their treatment in China was anything but merciful.
After more than a year of ongoing horror in China, Yeon-mi and her mother were able to finally half walk and crawl through a strip of the Gobi desert into Mongolia, where they finally found the safe refuge they were seeking.
Now, from the safety of Seoul, South Korea, Yeonmi Park of yeonmi.net has become a tiny but powerful voice for change in North Korea. As a regular visitor on numerous radio and television shows, she has developed a strong following in South Korea, and an impassioned speech delivered at the One Young World Summit in Dublin, Ireland gained her a global following. Recently, she was honored to be named one of the BBC’s “Top 100 Women of 2014.”