Friday, 6 November 2015

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park Review

I’ve always been curious about life in North Korea but didn’t really make an effort to find out just how weird and harrowing it was until I saw Yeonmi Park’s In Order to Live - a memoir of a girl who grew up in North Korea, defected, and now lives in South Korea - and decided to find out. Well… I found out. Weird and harrowing doesn’t come close.

The book opens with a teenage Park and her mother trying to make it across the North Korea/China border in the middle of the night, bribing guards and risking everything. Her mother makes the men on the border rape her instead of her daughter. 

Oh no… 

That’s the opening gambit - that’s a hint at the level of misery in store. For a brief moment, Park’s depiction of her childhood in rural North Korea almost sounds quaint, if strangely anachronistic, like medieval peasants somehow still existed - the quiet, the focus on community, the closeness of her family - and then the famine hits. She sees stick-thin corpses near wells who had tried to get to some water, people are eating grass for nourishment, and one young man is executed for killing and eating a cow - a person’s life has less value than cattle. 

Park mentions the story of her grandmother’s death. An amputee, the grandmother, who couldn’t work, felt so guilty over eating her morsel of food each day, she chose instead to commit suicide than eat food that could go to her children and their families. She overdosed on meth and went to sleep forever. Why meth? There’s no medicine in North Korea and the only painkiller they have that’s cheap and effective is this street drug. 

Her father had to resort to smuggling to keep his family fed - until he’s caught, sent to a detention camp, and then it’s down to her mother to make money for the family. They can’t make money in the rural village where they live, each parent had to go to Pyongyang to scrape together a living. Her mother ended up leaving Park and her little sister alone out of desperation - Park was 8 years old. 

I spent weeks reading this and eventually gave up at the 30% mark. This was more real than I could handle. I was crying every few pages, I was miserable, I was getting really depressed reading this nightmarish account, so I had to stop for my own mental well-being. It’s too much.

I’m glad I tried reading it though as I did learn a tremendous amount about North Korea - it really is a country-sized cult. Like how they’re taught their Dear Leader can control weather with his thoughts and how he wrote 1500 books in his three years at university. A North Korean arithmetic problem taught to kids literally goes: “If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?”

But holy fucking god - this is a tough read. I know, poor me, right? Considering what this young woman went through! I wouldn’t have made it anywhere near her age now (she’s only in her early twenties) if I’d been born in North Korea! If you want to get a crystal-clear picture of just how horrific day-to-day life in North Korea is, In Order to Live is for you but this much concentrated human suffering will seriously make your heart hurt. 

I can only hope Park and her mother find her missing sister someday - if there’s any justice, give this family some happiness for pity’s sake!! - and someone somehow soon kills those evil Kim fucks and flattens their entire regime. Like the abolishment of East and West Germany, I really hope we see a single unified and free Korea in our lifetimes. 

Now I’m gonna go drink many drinks and curl up in the fetal position…

In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom

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