Growing up in the West, there was always a bizarre mythology associated with North Korea, indeed one that at times seemed almost laughable. The tales we would hear of the breeding of unicorns, or that golf had been banned as, according to legend, Kim Jong Il had once invited his good buddy Tiger Woods to play a round and had therein scored a hole-in-one on every hole, thus negating the need for anyone to ever play again… It all seemed just so utterly ridiculous.
As I grew older, however, news stories would come in; the mass shooting of a group of people for merely owning bibles, the starvation and alleged cannibalism in the county’s poorest regions, the high-tech hospital opened to tourists to show off the country’s amazing technology, whilst at the same time lacking any actual patients. And then I began teaching Korean students, therein learning of their days in their mandatory military service and the horrors seen by those unfortunate enough to have been posted along the border. I became fascinated with North Korea in the same way one cannot help but be entranced by a car crash. I had to know more about this country that seemed trapped in an age where only the rich held any importance and life was a luxury with which only they were endowed.
As such, upon one of my journeys to Waterstones, I was instantly drawn to Yeonmi Park’s account of her escape from the regime, ‘In Order to Live’, a book which turned out to be one of the most harrowing two day’s reading of my life.
Having grown up in rural North Korea, Park tells of the extreme poverty of her countrymen; the cold and the starvation whilst all the while under the watchful eye of the all-seeing government. This is a government that teaches of the evils and horrors of the Western world, whilst at the same time enforcing such bizarre rules as ensuring each household provides a daily “donation” of human waste to fertilise the country’s farmland. Watching the lights twinkle across the river that separates them from China, Park and her family determine to cross the border to what the believe will be safety.
Enlisting the help of a series of”friends” and corrupt brokers, Park, along with her sister and mother, leaves her ailing father behind and begins the arduous escape, only to be met by China’s sordid underworld, a society that is happy to exploit the North Korean refugees in a life that will feed them and clothe them and yet subject them to equal amounts of emotional and mental torture as their former dictators. Of course, in China, they have no legal rights, and if discovered, it’s a short trip back to the country they have strived so hard to escape.
The only means of freedom is to take the dangerous trek through the desert and into Mongolia, where refugees are sent to “rehabilitation camps” in South Korea. And therein lies arguably the book’s most heart-wrenching passages. Park’s journey through the desert feels like an eternity; battling the elements whilst all the while living in fear of being caught. Were we not the all-knowing reader of a work of non-fiction, the chances of survival for our protagonists would be negatable.
And this is the true power of ‘In Order to Live’. This could easily read like some work of dystopian science-fiction; a world of abject terror and all-powerful leaders where impoverished heroes try to defeat their oppressors. In our comfortable homes in the West, it all seems too far-fetched to be real. And yet, it is. This is the story of thousands of people’s suffering whilst the world around them lives in the joyous oblivion of Snap Chat and social media.
‘In Order to Live’ is at times a difficult read, but, in its closing moments, it proves to be one of the greatest stories of hope that I have ever had the joy of reading. Knowing that Park has survived her ordeal and is now happily married and with a family proves that there is chance for the people of North Korea. It’s just a shame that those with the ability to help seem more concerned with armaments than the plight of the common man. Park escaped, whilst thousands still starve under heartless rule. But her voice speaks for an entire nation.