The gunshots rang out, their intentions loud and clear. A river of blood quickly formed on the North Korean landscape as little Yeonmi Park watched, unflinching. It was not the first execution she had witnessed, but this one was different. The woman executed was her friend’s mother, for an action that Yeonmi herself had done many times: watching a contraband film.
Yeonmi was born to a hardworking couple in Hyesan in 1993, amidst the height of a famine. Government rations were meager at best, and people did what they had to survive. After Yeonmi’s father had been arrested as part of a smuggling operation, it was agreed that Yeonmi, her sister, and mother would hire smugglers to lead them to China.
“I remember running,” Yeonmi said on Youngvoicesadvocates. “I hurt so bad, and I was crying, but I kept running. We ran into forests, through mountains, and the Yalu River. We didn’t even know how frozen it was until we crossed.”
Yeonmi’s sister, Eunmi, left with others before Yeonmi and her mother departed. When Yeonmi and Mrs. Park reached China, they faced another peril. One of the men tried to rape then 13-year-old Yeonmi.
“My mother begged for them to take her instead,” Yeonmi recalled. “But they made me stand nearby.”
The teen and her mother were subsequently sold as slaves but were freed two years later. The pair made their way to South Korea, where they were quickly overwhelmed.
“There is such freedom. This is a paradise,” Yeonmi told a reporter for The Guardian, in regards to South Korea. “My family did not know these things existed.”
Yeonmi and her mother were reunited with Eunmi, who had also found her way to South Korea. Yeonmi now divides her time between attending college, working for a think-tank, and speaking at human-rights summits across the globe.