Park Yeon-mi (stylized as Yeonmi Park) is a North Korean defector and human rights activist who escaped North Korea in 2007 and currently lives in South Korea.
Park was born on October 4, 1993 in Hyesan, Ryanggang, North Korea. Her father was a civil servant who worked at the Hyesan town hall as part of the ruling Workers Party, and her mother was a nurse for the North Korean Army. Her family lived in Hyesan until 2002, when she moved to Pyongyang to join her father who was then a businessman. Her family was wealthy during most of her childhood, although the family later struggled after her father was imprisoned for allegedly engaging in an illegal trading business. Park has an older sister, Eunmi.
Her views of the Kim Dynasty changed when she watched a pirated DVD of the 1997 movie, Titanic, which made her realize the oppressive nature of the North Korean government. The movie taught her the true meaning of love and gave her “a taste of freedom.” This realization of the government’s cruelty was further revealed when, at nine years old, she witnessed the execution of one of her mother’s friends for selling DVDs and watching a James Bond movie.
Park’s father was diagnosed with colon cancer while interned in a labor camp. In 2005, he used a bribe to secure his release from the camp in order to receive medical treatment. When reunited with his family, he urged them to plan their escape to China. Unfortunately, her older sister Eunmi left for China early without notifying them.
Park and her family escaped North Korea by traveling through China with the help of brokers who smuggle North Koreans into China. One of their smugglers threatened to report them to the authorities if Park didn’t have sex with him. Her mother intervened for her safety by offering herself to the smuggler, who then raped her in front of Park.
In January 2008, Park’s father died at 45 while the family was living in secret. They were unable to formally mourn him, in fear that their profiles would be discovered by Chinese authorities, and buried his remains in a nearby mountain. Park said, “there was no funeral. Nothing. I couldn’t even do that for my father. I couldn’t call anyone to say my father had passed away. We couldn’t even give him painkillers.”
After the burial, they rode a bus for two days to a Christian shelter headed by Chinese and South Korean missionaries in the port city of Qingdao, China. Due to the large Korean population in the city, they were able to avert the attention of authorities. With the help of the missionaries, they took a chance and fled to South Korea through Mongolia.
After this harrowing journey, Park became a human rights activist, student, and a celebrity. In April 2014, South Korean intelligence discovered her sister, Eunmi, who is now living in Seoul; Eunmi had escaped to South Korea via China and Thailand. Park and her mother eventually reunited with Eunmi.
Park is currently enrolled in Dongguk University in Seoul as a third-year student and majors in criminal justice. In her spare time, she has taught herself fluent English by watching a Friends TV series DVD box set and watching YouTube videos.
Park has written and spoken publicly about her life in North Korea, having written for the Washington Post, and interviewed by The Guardian. Park has detailed her harrowing escape at several well-known events like TEDx Youth in Bath, TEDxHangang in Seoul, the One Young World Summit 2014 in Dublin, North Korean Millennial, and the Oslo Freedom Forum.