Most of us have heard that North Korea is headed by a psychopathic dictator, Kim Jong-un, who has been known to assassinate his own family members if they do not follow his orders. You might also know that North Korea has an arsenal of nuclear weapons that they have threatened to unleash on the U.S. on more than one occasion in the past few months, putting us all on the freaking edge, to say the least.
I think we can all agree that North Korea is a country none of us want to be associated with in any way, shape, or form. But what you might not realize is that the citizens of North Korea are the ones who are suffering the most. By far. The human rights violations that have been reported from this country are beyond unconscionable — painful to even consider — and yet many of us simply don’t know anything about them.
Well, we need to change that, pronto, and take this issue with the utmost seriousness.
Recently, a viral video of a young woman named Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector, was making the rounds, and I got a chance to watch her story. To say that Park is a heroine would be a vast understatement. She fled her country under unimaginable circumstances and then had to endure the equally terrifying life of a North Korean refugee in China, where she and her mother were trafficked and sold, and where as a young teen, she had to bury her father alone in the middle of the night.
Trafficked and sold. Had to bury her own father. As a young teen. Let all that sink in.
In her speech, recorded in 2014 at a One Young World Summit in Dublin, Park bravely shares her story in chilling, raw detail. It’s one of those things you have to see with your own eyes to fully understand, and I urge you to take some time to bear witness to this woman’s story:
“North Korea is an unimaginable country,” Park begins, as she describes the life she left behind. “There is only one channel on TV. There is no internet. We aren’t free to say, wear, or think what we want. North Korea is the only country in the world that executed our people for making unauthorized international phone calls. North Koreans are being terrorized today.”
After this disturbing account of what it is like to live in a dictatorship that essentially cuts you off from the rest of the world and attempts to brainwash you into believing that this is how one should live, Park explains how she and her family fled the country. She describes how her mother protected her from rape as they fled, by enduring a rape herself instead, right before her daughter’s eyes.
She explains that it’s not just life in North Korea that is unbearable, but that many North Koreans escape the country via China, and the life of a North Korean refugee in China is equally appalling. She quotes statistics pointing to the fact that over 300,000 North Koreans have fled to China, as refugees, and while there, about 70% of women and girls are victimized, sometimes being sold for as little as $200. (Yes, you read that right.)
There is hope for North Koreans who are able to make it out. Park herself is an amazing success story. She was eventually led to freedom in South Korea, where she attended college. She then came to America in 2014 and began studying at Columbia University soon after.
But there’s more: Park has become an international spokeswoman for the humanitarian crisis in North Korea — and even shared her story in a memoir published by Penguin books in 2016.
Park has much to be personally grateful for, but what she knows from deep within her heart is that her work is far from done. In her speech, she urges all of us take action: Educate ourselves on the crisis, help support refugees who have fled the country, and urge countries across the world to petition China to stop repatriation of North Korean refugees.
In addition to some of the atrocities Park described in her speech, here are some other facts you should know about the human rights crisis in North Korea. As Amnesty International describes it, thousands of North Koreans, including children, are forced to live in political prison camps where they are pushed into forced labor, starved, and tortured. Starvation in general continues to be a huge issue in North Korea; food insecurity is a common problem, and it is estimated that millions have died of starvation since the 1990s.
This information should make you angry and heartbroken, but don’t just sit there: Do something.
If you would like to help, please consider donating to Liberty in North Korea, a fantastic organization that seeks to rescue and resettle North Korean refugees. You can also donate to Amnesty International, which has a long-standing history of helping people fleeing humanitarian crises around the world.
Most of all, we need to listen to the stories of the brave women and men who have fled North Korea. We cannot turn a blind eye to their suffering, and we must make it known that this sort of treatment of our fellow humans is completely unacceptable.
“We have to shed light on the darkest place in the world,” says Park at the end of her speech. “We need to focus less on the regime, and more on the people who are being forgotten.”