“How do you fight to be free when you don’t know you’re a slave?”
I sit down with North Korean defector Yeonmi Park, author of “In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom.”
We discuss the North Korean regime’s brainwashing tactics, the parallels between her experiences in North Korea and what she now sees in America, and the “suicide of Western civilization.”
Park’s memoir recently made it into Amazon’s weekly list of 20 best-selling nonfiction books, nearly six years after she published it.
Jan Jekielek: Yeonmi Park, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Yeonmi Park: Thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor.
Mr. Jekielek: Yeonmi, first of all, congratulations on making the top 20 Amazon Bestseller List. Top 20 of all in the U.S., right? That’s an incredible achievement for your book, which is, of course, “In Order to Live: a North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom.”
Ms. Park: Yes, it was published six years ago. And it’s interesting when it came out, it was not a huge bestseller at all, especially in the U.S. But now suddenly people really became interested. So I’m truly grateful.
Mr. Jekielek: So why do you think people are so interested all of a sudden? I’m incredibly interested and this is a really broad and incredible story. But why do you think now is when this interest is starting to grow?
Ms. Park: So when this book came out, the New York Times did not give a good review at all. They almost in a way said, “Why does anybody have to read her book?” That kind of review. And the book did really well in like Sweden, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other regions, not in the US. It’s been doing really well because I’ve been starting reaching out to people who actually care about oppression, who actually care about injustice. Somehow before the mainstream wasn’t interested, to talk about this story. And, of course, if the media doesn’t talk about it, it’s hard to reach people.
Mr. Jekielek: The book is honestly one of the best books I’ve ever read. Because the book can help people understand a little bit, and it’s very hard to do this, if you’ve lived in a free country your whole life, what it’s like to live in a regime under a dictatorship. When I was a kid, my parents escaped from communist Poland in the ’70s, and we had a rule in the family. And the rule was never talk about anything in the family, outside of the family. You can never talk about it.
I thought my parents were crazy. What’s wrong with it? This is what kids did all the time. We would just say to each other, “Hey, my mom did this.” But no, that would be treason. Actually, when I read your story, I thought, “Okay, I see a little bit of that.” And, of course, in Poland, it was never nearly as bad as North Korea. But why don’t we start at that point? Like why were my parents not crazy?
Ms. Park: In North Korea, literally, what you say, it’s not just going to kill you, it’s going to kill up to three to eight generations of your family. So I remember the first thing my mom taught me as a young girl was not even to be careful with strangers, but to be careful with these things. She said, “Watch out what you say.” Like even the birds and mice could hear my whisper.
She said, “The most dangerous thing that you have in your body is your tongue.” That was the only way that she knew how to protect me. So in a way, in North Korea, even thinking is not free. Like a thought crime is a real thing. So that’s how they oppress you to the point where you don’t even know how to think freely.
Mr. Jekielek: So what could happen? Actually you have an amazing vignette with your mother pretty early in the book. Why don’t you tell me a bit about that? About what could happen when someone says something a little bit off?
Ms. Park: One of the examples that my mom heard from the uncle that she knew, some friend that she knew, that the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il didn’t die from exhaustion. He died from a heart attack. And the regime was telling us that Kim died from working so hard for the people, the wellbeing of the people.
I literally believed that growing up in North Korea, that Dear Leader was starving and he would not sleep well. He was working so, so hard for us. And how lucky we are that we have such a great leader. Then she was telling her friend, “Can you believe what the enemy is saying? Our Dear Leader died from exhaustion, but they say he died from a heart attack?” She was defending the ideology.
But her friend, her best friend was a spy. That’s another thing about the North Korean regime, if there are three people, I watch you, and you watch somebody else. So I’m being watched, and I’m watching somebody. So even though I’m being such a decent person—I’m not going to report on you—I know somebody is watching me. But if that person is not going to report on me, that person is also being watched.
So you cannot escape that, you have to report on each other. That’s how the regime creates distrust between people. And that’s how you create this North Korea where nobody can trust even their own back. Nobody can trust anything at that point. Of course, that taught my mom the lesson that, you just never know, and you don’t actually have a friend in North Korea.
Mr. Jekielek: What can happen to someone if they even say something so innocuously, even supporting the regime as your mother did? What could happen?
Ms. Park: In my mom’s case she was really lucky, because she was defending it. She had young children, so she was begging [the authorities], and she never had committed any kind of offense before. But if she was saying it like, “Would that be possible,” or something with that kind of a nuance, then she would be executed.
Then the three generations of her family would go to a concentration camp for her crime. It’s called by guilt by association. So the fact that you’re being associated with that person, makes you guilty automatically. That’s like a very similar thing in America now, where there’s white guilt, and white privilege.
What does it even mean? Why does anybody born today have to be guilty about the slavery that happened hundreds of years ago? That is not true. But in North Korea, they do exactly the same thing. If your great, great, great, great grandfather was a capitalist, now you’re guilty and your blood is forever tainted.
Mr. Jekielek: It completely would change your relationships. By the way, I do want to touch on the whole white guilt question, maybe a little later. But how completely does it change every aspect of the relationships that you can have with people living like this?
Ms. Park: That’s the thing, in North Korea, there’s no word for friends. We have a word for comrade though, but it’s a different thing. Comrade means you are working for the revolution, you share the same goal of the revolution, the glory of the party. When you’re friends, you’re there for each other.
The regime removed a lot of concepts for us, like love. We don’t know what love is. I never saw anybody saying love to each other. The only love that people are allowed to know is that love for the Dear Leader. (inaudible)
They also get rid of the concept of human rights. When a baby’s born, they don’t know what human rights is. Somebody teaches them. They go to school to learn about human rights. They need to learn. But the regime gets rid of them, they get rid of them in the dictionary.
I always joke like we don’t even know what “gay” is. We don’t have the vocabulary for it. That’s how they control your thoughts. Like George Orwell talks about doublespeak. Who controls the language? Who controls your thoughts? They get rid of liberty, human rights, freedom, friends, even depression.
I don’t know what depression is. I don’t even know what stress is. Because how can you be stressed in a socialist paradise? So they don’t allow that word. You don’t even know what that is. That’s what the ultimate mind control looks like.
Mr. Jekielek: “Animal Farm,” this book gives you, in a very simple way, a picture of how a communist society emerges and how it works.
Ms. Park: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating. You had a big realization when you read that book.
Ms. Park: Yes. Until that point, I had some kind of chaos when it came to believing anything. I grew up in South Korea from like 15, 16-years-old. Then they told me, well, “Americans are not bastards. They are not colonizing South Koreans, they are good people. And whatever you believed in North Korea, everything was a lie. So believe us, what we’re telling you is true.”
And then, at that point, how do I know what you’re telling me is not a lie? There’s no evidence! Everything that I believed was a lie. It was the hardest thing: how do you trust again? And that’s when I read “Animal Farm” by George Orwell. That just explained to me what happened to my people, and what happened to my country.
And the saddest part about it is that I initially thought Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-il, they were the problems. They are the only sole responsible parties for this tragedy, this human suffering. But the thing is, you see all those animals in the beginning, they all knew what the truth was. Then there was a fear, and they kept silent.
Then when it comes to young animals, they’re so dumb. They don’t even know what the alternative life looks like. They don’t even know what is possible. That was me when I was born in the country. I had no idea what life was like before Kim, or before the Communist Revolution. For me, I did not know life could be any other way.
This is the saddest thing for my people, they don’t even know they are slaves. How do you fight to be free when you don’t know you’re a slave? That’s an impossibility. This is the most scary ending of the whole story… [You think] you’re oppressed. You’re not oppressed. True oppression, true isolation is like the North Koreans. They don’t even know that they’re isolated.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s really incredible. I mean, I want to talk more about this. Now we’re talking about this ideological control, control of language, and this surveillance state. But the thing that I had never thought of until I read your book, is that hunger is actually a deliberate form of control.
Ms. Park: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: How does that work?
Ms. Park: When the Soviets were collapsing, they stopped subsidizing North Korea’s economy. The North Korean regime was like, “Okay, we are not going to feed people.” So there are 10 percent of the population living in the capital. In North Korea, there is a hierarchy between people. We have 50 different classes. What an irony! They began with the most equal society in the world, which is communist. Then they created 51, actually, classes between people, the same Koreans.
As a North Korean, you have no freedom to even go to the next town without the travel permit. A North Korean’s dream is not like traveling to Europe in their lifetime. They don’t even know what Europe is. Their dream is going to their own capital in their lifetime.
So the regime thought, “Okay, as long as you reach this 10 percent, the core class that supports the revolution, then we are good.” That’s how they measure their success. “We’re only going to keep the 10 percent alive. And until the 90 percent die, we don’t need to do anything about it.” And then Kim Jong-un said, “It’s easy to do socialism when there are less people.” So he wants us to die, he wants to cleanse the population through starvation.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m remembering something called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you’re at the level where food is your basic need, which sounds like it was pretty much your whole life while you were in North Korea, that was your number one fixation, right?
Ms. Park: Yes. That’s the thing. In North Korea, for an average person. You eat lunch, but then you worry about dinner. If you worry about dinner, you say, “How am I going to find dinner?” When you find dinner, you’re going to say, “Okay I made it through one day, but how am I going to survive tomorrow?” You don’t know if you’re going to find food for tomorrow or not.
So every single minute of your existence, you are worrying about your survival, worrying about finding food. When you are worrying about your own survival, every single minute, you’re not going to think about what freedom is. What’s the meaning of life, right? We don’t question anything. You are so desperate.
So that’s why it’s so easy for the regime to control the population when they’re so weak and so desperate, and they have no time to think about anything other than just surviving and finding food. In a way, it is very effective tool to control the population. But it’s torture. Being starved is worse than being raped. It’s the worst form of torture that you can experience.
That’s how the regime uses starvation as a tool to control these millions of North Koreans in the 21st century. The one missile test Kim Jong-un does each time costs the money it would take to feed the entire population of 25 millions for a year. He did 30 tests since 2017.
So if he just did four less tests, nobody would have to starve in North Korea. His regime just doesn’t want to feed people. They like to say North Korea is poor. No, North Korea is not poor. The regime just chooses not to feed the people.
Mr. Jekielek: This reality is, very, very difficult to fathom and it sent a chill down my spine when you said that hunger is worse than rape. Unfortunately, in your book, you describe this as something you’re familiar with.
Ms. Park: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Because of the realities of what you were forced to do just to survive. And so your father was actually put in jail.
Ms. Park: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: That puts you down into a lower place in the caste.
Ms. Park: A lower caste, yes.
Mr. Jekielek: What happens if you’re low on the list?
Ms. Park: That’s the thing in North Korea, your life is determined for you based on what your great, great grandfather did. It determines what city you live in? Where do you go? Do you even go to school? Do you become a farmer? Do you become a factory worker or go to university?
Depending on the caste, it doesn’t matter what you want to do. Nobody owns themselves in North Korea. I don’t even have the right to decide what I want to wear in North Korea. It was a joke for [people] here. People say, “Oh, North Korean men have to have the Kim Jong-un haircut.” and it was silly to them, right? How funny is it that Kim Jong-un demands everyone looked like his haircut.
So people have zero autonomy. You get executed for looking at a photo and giving it to your friends. You get sent to prison for wearing jeans. The song that you listen to, the book that you read, even your clothes, even your haircut, you don’t get to decide. The regime decides every single thing for you. That’s what the ultimate big state looks like.
Mr. Jekielek: You were 13-years-old when you decided to try to go to China to escape.
Ms. Park: Yes. To find food. It was 2007 and we just couldn’t food anymore. That was like the last straw. And it wasn’t like I was planning the grand escape. I had never even seen a map of the world.
We don’t have the internet in our school. You don’t go and look up what the outside world would have looked like. At night time I was just barely looking at China and seeing these lights coming from China. I thought maybe if I go where the lights were, I would find some food to eat. And that’s why we escaped.
Mr. Jekielek: When I read your book, I learned that your family was incredibly important to you, as it is in many places in the world.
Ms. Park: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: You believe that your father saw outside of the propaganda somehow because he was a tradesman and that can help.
Ms. Park: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Your mother was also originally very indoctrinated into the regime’s ideology, but started to see through it along the way. What’s struck me as we know from research done in the U.S., people that grow up in a complete family have a huge, huge advantage over people that grow up in a single parent household. Why does the regime try to break everything down—they control your thoughts, they control your language, they control you through hunger, they try to reduce the population—but somehow they haven’t tried to undermine the family unit.
Ms. Park: That’s interesting, yes. I know that in some of the countries, the state raised kids, like in Germany under Hitler, the kids would go to this daycare and the teachers would raise them. For many, many hours they’re being separated from their kids.
Initially, the North Korean regime tried that. And then when the Soviet Union collapsed, they couldn’t even afford that. Teachers were starving and dying on the streets. Everybody was starving. So the society kind of became chaos.
That’s the thing, seeing that everybody’s on the streets every single day, and they cannot even keep track of who died. People were floating around on the river. You go to a train station and people go out to find food, and then die on the street. There was cannibalism, people eating each other.
In North Korea when somebody says, “I’m going to go out and I will be back.” You don’t know if you’re going to ever see them again. That’s daily life. So it became such a chaos for the regime.
That’s when I was born in 1993, at the end of it. That was like in the middle of the famine, when so many people were dying. That’s when the regime’s ideology became a lot weaker. And in a way that’s how the market was rising in North Korea. Until then, the market was something unheard of.
Mr. Jekielek: Completely illegal, right?
Ms. Park: Yes, illegal.
Mr. Jekielek: All the way through you could be executed.
Ms. Park: Money was such a shameful thing. People thought, “Who talks about money?” In North Korea, the word profit is really a demonized word. That’s a capitalist thing. Until this day, you have to be careful saying the word profit.
I remember that this famine created an opportunity for the people to start engaging in the black market. People would go sell their cardigan and buy some corn. In a way that was also maybe a good opportunity for us to learn independence from the state.
Mr. Jekielek: Your story intersects so many different areas. You escaped to China where you were able to find food, but you only found another form of terror and slavery.
Ms. Park: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: You stepped right into this prolific human and sex trafficking business in that whole part of China.
Ms. Park: Yes. This is something that is still happening right now as I’m talking to you. Right at this point there are about 300,000 North Koreans hiding in China. Most of them are women, and literally 99 percent of them are being trafficked.. Because of China’s one-child policy, they were aborting a lot of girls.
Right now in China, especially in the rural areas, up to 30 million young men can not find wives, because there’s not enough women for them. That number keeps increasing as time goes by. North Koreans are not recognized by the Chinese government as refugees. So they call us fugitives. They try to catch us and then send us back to North Korea, which is like catching Jews and sending them back to the concentration camp. It is a crime against humanity.
When we escape, we are not refugees. We are defectors. When you escape the regime, that means you are defying the party’s ideology. So when you’re sent back to North, you get severely punished or executed.
So North Koreans are so vulnerable in China. The human traffickers know that the last thing we will do is to go to the police and ask for help in China, because they are the ones that catch us and send us back. And that’s why the human traffickers keep telling us, “I can kill you at this very moment. You are less valued than even a pig.”
North Koreans are going into slavery, prostitution, chatrooms, gangs, and even some of them get their organs harvested. Hundreds of thousands of them are trapped in China right now. And this is happening in this 21st century. Modern day slavery is happening. It’s shocking how nobody talks about this.
Mr. Jekielek: What comes out in your book is that there’s a very well established system of gangs and cartels that organize this. And you ended up with a gangster, right?
Ms. Park: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Because it was a better option than certain death.
Ms. Park: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: And actually you were able to find your mother in this. Can you tell me about that? It’s just a touching and shocking and heartbreaking part of the story.
Ms. Park: So at 13, I crossed this frozen river with my mom, and then of course the first thing I see is my mom being raped. Until that point, I had never even seen what sex was. There’s no sex education in North Korea, no movies where people are sleeping with each other and kissing.
Then after they raped my mom they said, “If you guys want to stay in China, you have to be sold as a slaves. So they sold my mom for less than $100, around $65. And then they sold me [for] over $200 because I was a virgin. And somehow that’s very valuable in China.
Then when I was being sold to another human trafficker, I wanted to kill myself. I was separated from everybody that I knew. I was in China. I was even more oppressed than being in North Korea. And when I was trying to kill myself, this trafficker who bought me told me that if I became his mistress, he would save my family for me. That was the deal that he offered.
So I thought, “Okay, if I sacrifice myself, I can rescue my family.” So I did it. I became his mistress at age 13. And then he brought my mom, and my father to me. That’s how I was able to reunite with them.
Mr. Jekielek: And he kept his word. You had no way of knowing that he would, because he had 100 percent of the power in this.
Ms. Park: But that’s the thing. That’s the complexity of being a human, like nobody is pure evil. Nobody is purely good either. It’s so hard to define what pure evil looks like. Of course he was a heartless man, raping a 13-year-old. Now I am so small, but I was even skinnier, a tiny, tiny thing. And he still did that.
But then he also still saved my parents for me. That’s why I couldn’t hate. At first, so many times I fantasized about killing him when I was being raped by him. But now looking back, I am grateful. It’s hard to be a human. Human nature is such a complex thing.
Mr. Jekielek: You found a way, again, through an amazing set of circumstances to make it to South Korea. It’s a miracle that you made it through the Gobi desert in the middle of the night at minus 40 degrees, which by the way, minus 40 Celsius and Fahrenheit are the same for all the viewers. And it’s really, really cold.
Ms. Park: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: No map, and it was missionaries that basically put you up to it. How did that work?
Ms. Park: While I was in China, we knew this other North Korean defector woman. She met the missionaries and they said that if we come to their shelter and study the Bible and become Christian, and if we prove our faith to them that we are Christian, they would help us to go to South Korea. So we joined the shelter and they taught me about God and Jesus Christ, all of that. And somehow we proved our faith to them. That’s when they told us, “Okay, if you want to escape from China, you have to walk across the frozen Gobi desert using a compass in your hands.”
The chances of making it across the desert are so low. They cannot even come with us, like how do you even go back? That’s why they were just letting us go into the desert with the compass and telling us to go to the west and north, between those directions. Eventually I followed the Northern star. Literally, in the middle of the desert, following the Northern star, and praying that it leads to freedom. And it did, it really did. I have seen so many miracles in life.
Mr. Jekielek: You described that you made it to South Korea through Mongolia. They set up some false papers for you. They flew you over, it was your first flight. Again, it’s such an unbelievable telling tale. I hope everybody reads your book.
You’re now in South Korea. You’ve gone through the government training camp to learn the vocabulary, and to be able to function in the society. You were saying that the language is so controlled, there’s all these elements. You’ve been through all you’ve been through, and you go to an internet cafe. But the person was kind of racist against North Koreans.
Ms. Park: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: And it crushed you and you wanted to hide. This is just, again, talking about the complexity of the human psyche, you’ve been through so many things that most of the people watching this show couldn’t even imagine. But here with this punk in the internet cafe, being the way he is, sort of biased against North Koreans, it crushes you and hurts you so much. I thought that was such a fascinating moment.
Ms. Park: It actually makes me think what it was. North Koreans are so strong. They are trafficked. They go through so many unbelievable things. They are willing to be free and go to South Korea and be free. They are the highest group in South Korea to commit suicide.
You would think these people are tough as rock or steel. And then why on earth do they go to South Korea and kill themselves after all that suffering. What it is to me, at least right now, is that we had a different expectation when we are going to South Korea. We are promised freedom and justice.
When we were going to China, we were just looking for food. Like the motivation to go to China is a very primitive thing, survival. Getting food. But China to South Korea is a very dangerous journey. The North Korean regime wouldn’t execute you if you’re not trying to leave China and then just go back to North Korea. They would send you to a prison camp.
But if they do find that you’re trying to escape to South Korea, that’s where you get executed or sent to a lifetime concentration camp. So even the sentences are different. That’s why when you go to South Korea, it is literally the ultimate step. And what do you risk your life for?
That’s when you risk your life for freedom. That’s why when you go to South Korea, we have different expectation. They think South Korea is going to be our people. They are not Chinese, they are speaking the same Korean. So you going there, being discriminated against by your own people, and then being discriminated about what?
So the expectation is really different. And there’s the loneliness that you feel. In China you are so busy surviving. You don’t even think about what loneliness is. Every single second in China is a struggle to survive. But when you go to South Korea, finally, your basic needs are met.
At least you have food and ramen. Then you start thinking about the people that you lost on the journey, the people you left behind. And I think that’s why life is a lot harder in South Korea. Not harder, but it still feels like it’s such a struggle adjusting to South Korea in the beginning.
Mr.Jekielek: When did you realize there was such a thing as freedom?
Ms. Park: I heard about freedom when I was in China. This defector lady told me let’s go to South Korea. There we are going be free. And then I was like, “What is free?” And then she was like, “Oh yes, we can wear jeans there. And then you can watch South Korean K-dramas.” Because I love K-dramas. “Nobody will arrest you for that!”
So back then, my thought of freedom was not like freedom of speech, none of this. I thought, “if I go to South Korea, then I can wear jeans and I can watch TV for free. Okay, why don’t we risk our lives for that?” Even that sounded to me like unbelievable freedom, like how anybody could have freedom to wear jeans? That’s what I thought of as freedom back then at age 15.
Mr. Jekielek: I said at the beginning that I’ve realized by following you that truth telling seems to be your main life purpose these days. First of all is that fair to say?
Ms. Park: Yes, it is.
Mr. Jekielek: So somewhere along the way, you realized that this is the best way to help your fellow North Koreans. How did that happen? Where did this understanding come from?
Ms. Park: I think in the past, when I was giving testimonies or even writing that book, it was unbelievably painful to relive all the things. I remember writing parts about China and my father. I lost my father again by writing that part. So literally when I [wrote about how I] crossed the desert, I felt like I left the desert again, right?
It was a very painful thing to relive the whole thing. And even still to this day, even when I was doing the Joe Rogan interview, after that, I got crushed. And it’s a thing. You let all the pain back to feel again. Back then, I did not understand that was important. Now it was a very intangible thing. How much of a difference I was actually making even.
But the thing is after I was reading Jordan Peterson’s book “12 Rules for Life.” During the pandemic, thankfully, I was able to read a lot of books again and kind of re-understood again, why it mattered.
In the time of deceit, telling the truth is the only brave, courageous thing you can do, right? I do think the world that we are living in is—as much as you don’t want it to be, in America right now—it is a time of deceit. It is so much lies. Truths are so hard to find, and they’re also making it hard to find. They’re creating so much chaos unnecessarily, so people get confused.
In this time, if you think you know the truth, I think that telling it is the only thing you can do to make the world a better place. As simple as that, and that realization just came to me last year. I think that’s why I’m devoting my life for that right now.
Mr. Jekielek: All I can say is wow, and yes. How important it is to tell the truth at any time, but especially at a time when, let’s say, deceit is on the rise.
Ms. Park: Yes. So prevalent at this point; it’s not even rising. I think everywhere, you see the lies, and it is so heartbreaking to see that. I imagined America to be way better than this. I had no clue this is what was going on.
When you see America from far away, it’s still the land of hope, right? The home of the brave, such a country that stood for justice for so many years. And this country had that exceptional moralism, that bravery, when it comes to freedom and individual liberty. It inspired me so much, and then coming here, looking inside, I was just baffled: how is this possible?
And of course, I [inaudible] America in a time when Trump was becoming president, a very unusual time with the country becoming so divided, and people keep telling me from both sides: this is not what America used to be. So in a way, it’s almost my fate that I need to fight for freedom wherever I go.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s very fascinating. In this interview you did with Jordan Peterson, you were talking about how incredibly disillusioning it was for you to go to Columbia University. Frankly, the whole discussion is kind of mind blowing because this is supposed to be one of the premier educational institutions in America for sure, in the world, probably. Right? I think you said that there were zero classes that ultimately were worthwhile for you. But how is that even possible?
Ms. Park: Exactly, right? Exactly. I mean, I was thirsty for truth. I was thirsty for knowledge after North Korea, where I had so much hunger for it. The sad part about being in North Korea is not just that you’re starving and there’s misery everywhere, but you are not even connected to your own humanity. You don’t even learn about the time before Kims, right?
The North Korean calendar begins when Kim Il-Sung was born, [inaudible] and then they don’t even tell you that. I didn’t even know that I was Asian. They told me that I was Kim Il-Sung race, so I thought okay, I’m Kim Il-Sung race, right? There’s so much beyond my being in the lineage of humanity. The show that we went through coming all the way to this place, it was such a long history that you find that the connection was completely cut off.
So coming here, even reading Jane Austen, reading Shakespeare, people who came way, way before me, the humans who thought certain ways. And that was so beautiful coming here, rediscovering my lineage as a human being in a long, long line with my ancestors.
And of course going to Columbia, they say reading Jane Austen, you’re subconsciously being brainwashed because she was living in the time of the white colonialism and racism. So she was a bigot. So that’s how you got subconsciously brainwashed.
This is a core lesson, a training. You look for the hidden oppression everywhere. And then every single class, the conclusion is that the American foundation is a bigotry. The foundation, the constitution, is bigotry and racism, white supremacism. The only [thing] we can do is, again, tearing down every single thing that we have and we build, whatever the paradise they are describing. And this is [inaudible] implanted by every single person going to Columbia.
And it didn’t matter if it was an evolution class. One thing Jordan Peterson asked me: if there was one class that changed your mind, what would that be? And I was like, the evolution class was so fascinating. I don’t know what homo rectus was, homo habilis, right? I don’t know but even in that class, the conclusion was about the white men’s aggression.
It was just so heartbreaking that academia could not be away from this ideology. It’s not about discovering the truth, right? It’s all about being politically correct. And this is heartbreaking seeing the suicide of Western civilization.
Mr. Jekielek: I mean, it’s incredible to hear you talk about this as someone who has lived through, essentially a Stalinist regime at its extreme.
Ms. Park: Yes. When Kim’s were [inaudible] to the point where they are convincing North Koreans that they’re gods, saying: Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il dies, but no, their spirit is with us forever. They copied the Bible saying that Jesus Christ died, right? But his spirit is with us forever.
So they said Kim Il-Sung loves us so much, he gave us his son, which is Kim Jong-il. And then Kim Jong-il died, but no, his spirit stays with us all the time. That’s a lie: he knows what you think, how much hair you have on your head. …
It’s a thing that people say, oh, nobody believes a lie; everybody believes truth. No. In a way, it’s so easy to make people believe a lie. And that’s why it’s so important for us to keep questioning and keep that critical thinking. Get out of this group think. The dumbest thing ever is this group think. Humans are not rational. I mean, if we are rational, why would we kill like 60 million people under Mao?
We’ve been trying this dumbest ideology called socialism and communism so many times in so many places. Whenever we tried it, it brought so much misery to us. And we were trying that thing again. This is why we need to know that [inaudible] humans are not rational thinkers.
Especially when you’re getting into this group think, we completely lose that rationality. And we’re seeing in America, the rise of this group think. If you do not agree with them, then you’re outcasted, you get de-platformed, right? And this is a tactic that Marxist and communists use to silence people in the name of the common good. For the sake of entire collectivism, then we can sacrifice a few individuals’ liberty.
It sounds amazing. It’s all for the common good, but it’s not. And it’s just so… every single day now I’m looking at this country, it’s so worrisome.
Mr. Jekielek: When I was reading about collective guilt in your book, I immediately thought of white guilt. I think you mentioned that at the beginning. It’s basically the same thing actually.
Ms. Park: It’s absolutely the same thing. That’s the thing, when we’re born, do we ask to become Asian or white? We don’t choose that. Do we choose our birth place? We don’t. The greatest injustice for me was being born in North Korea. I did not choose to be North Korean. I wouldn’t have, right? But that is something that you cannot change.
But when you’re being punished for the things that you didn’t have any say in, that is injustice. That’s a definition of injustice. And you’re punishing people for being white. Of course back then in America there was segregation and racism, they were punishing people who were black. I mean, that was so wrong.
But now we’re doing the exact opposite. We are punishing people [for being] white. Like my son is half white. He did not ask to be half white. How is it his fault? It’s not, so not blaming slavery and asking for these people… like you’re privileged, you’re guilty, coming from this lineage is the greatest injustice that you can do to anybody.
It destroys the human soul. And I don’t know why America is choosing this direction of destruction. This country was so merciful, so much grace, and people knew what grace looked like. And [now] they do not know other than just bitterness and resentment. So much resentment. At my Columbia campuses, every single one of them is so bitter. You guys are in the middle of Manhattan, you go to this Ivy League school, right?
Talk about the privilege. The fact that you are at this point alive, that’s a privilege, right? But they complain how they’re oppressed and so resentful. That’s when I couldn’t understand. This is the generation [that’s] lost. They are so lost that I don’t even know how to solve it anymore.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, I think you have one of the pieces at least, which you said earlier: truth telling. You were telling the truth about North Korea. It seems like you’re starting to tell the truth about the U.S. reality as well. And I think there’s something powerful and I guess revolutionary in a time of deceit.
Okay. Let’s jump to this other piece that I’ve been thinking a lot about. You had this horrific experience in China, but somewhere along the way, you have started to tell the truth about the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese regime. I’m very curious to learn, how this became so important to you.
Ms. Park: Initially, I did not know, right? Everything was hidden from me, and especially the parts of a Chinese connection to sponsoring dictatorship in North Korea is not known to most people. I was studying more about North Korea. I picked up every academic paper, the CIA, journalists, the analyst, writing the book later, right? After their time is done, they write a book about it. I picked up every book that I could and then reading it, and reading more and more.
I was realizing, without China, North Korea cannot function even one day without them, even talking about the missile test. North Korea doesn’t have oil. Kim Jong-un cannot even drive his Benz one day without China giving them oil. So how do you test nukes? If you don’t get any oil from them, you don’t. No matter what, even last year during COVID-19, China was using this illegal ship and giving the oil to Kim Jong-un to keep testing the nukes.
That is a thing. Without China, Kim Jong-un can never exist. And the only reason that the North Korean regime has lasted this long, almost eight years at this point, is because of the CCP.
People don’t know [the one] who is actually responsible for this tragedy is China. And of course Kim Jong-un is responsible partially. But I think though, when it comes to accountability, China is way, way bigger. They are enabling this dictatorship. And then also of course they are catching us and sending us back to North Korea, right? That’s against the Geneva Convention by the international law. That is a crime against humanity.
So while China is committing this kind of crime in the international community, all these people in America are talking about justice, equity, equality, blah, blah, blah. They’re doing business with this evil regime in China. … Nike, Adidas, all these companies talking about how America is systemically racist. And then they’re like kissing up to the CCP there.
LeBron James, he’s a hero for the woke liberals. He’s talking about the racism that exists in America, all of the slavery, how that was wrong. And he has no problem defending the CCP’s aggression towards Hong Kong. This is the biggest hypocrisy.
I’m not in any way saying that the slavery that happened in America wasn’t wrong. It was wrong. It was so horribly wrong. That’s why what is happening to the North Korean people is also wrong, right? If your conscience is is telling you that slavery is not okay, then how are you okay with this?
Anybody who is honest should ask the question to themselves. Why do they only care about the slavery that happened in America? This is what breaks my heart. Like why not in Africa? There are slavery markets in Middle East, so many parts of it where there are still many, many, many, many slaves.
Mr. Jekielek: And, you know, frankly, even in America, to this day, there are people who are being trafficked and effectively function as slaves. It’s incredible, but we don’t hear much about that.
Ms. Park: No, it’s all about their own political agenda. …
When I was willing to criticize Trump, that was the only time The New York Times wanted me to come on–to criticize Trump for meeting Kim Jong-un without pre-concessions. And whenever I tried to talk about my people, how the girls in China are being trafficked, how my people are suffering under this regime, they don’t care about that part. They just want to find a narrative that fits their agenda.
To this day, if The New York Times calls me and asked me my opinion about the woke culture in this country, I wouldn’t go on there. I don’t discriminate against them, but they don’t care.
Then of course they keep saying: why are you getting on Fox? And becoming the propaganda puppet for this right-wing, conservative, bigoted, Nazi people? [Laughs] I never knew that in America, this thing—I just never knew. This is so idiotic. What a waste of time. Why are you doing this to each other? I don’t get it.
Mr. Jekielek: You and me both. I honestly sit up at night sometimes thinking about that because it does feel like a kind of self-destruction doesn’t it?
Ms. Park: Exactly. And what do they gain by penalizing [people]: “Why did you get on Fox?” I mean, how does anybody gain anything from that? It’s just a culture of denouncing which is such a North Korean thing. We always have to keep denouncing our enemies. If there’s any sign of infiltration of our enemies, we have to keep denouncing, denouncing, and report on each other.
In America, they’ve gone so far. All you see is people just denouncing and pointing fingers at each other—without recognizing each other’s humanity.
I spoke at TED like two years ago. You are in the room with movers and shakers, the technology, all these companies are there. I told them I have an event in Texas. And they were like, “what do you mean you’re going to Texas? That’s Trump country. I made a decision that I will never set a foot in those Trump countries.” And I was like, do you know that’s America? That’s the same country, right?
The most highly educated, powerful people in the world are doing this. This is nonsense. And I think this is how any country goes down to the gutter. That’s how you destroy your own country by doing that. When you stop appreciating diversity of thoughts. That’s where we are going to all become like North Korea, where there’s only one idea that’s allowed to be accepted.
Mr. Jekielek: So you think it’s actually conceivable that America could become like a North Korea?
Ms. Park: Totally. When was it conceivable? I mean, did you expect to be banned or demonetized and censored by YouTube 10 years ago?
Mr. Jekielek: Actually, it didn’t remotely occur to me that that could be possible.
Ms. Park: Me neither, until I started my YouTube channel last year. The people talk about censorship. I thought: what the heck is that? They’re exaggerating. I thought like, how can that be possible? Why would they do that? And then I was making all these videos about women’s suffering in China. That was the time of #MeToo. So I complained to Google, don’t you guys support #MeToo? I’m talking about women’s suffering in China under the communist regime.
Mr. Jekielek: So they censored those videos?
Ms. Park: Absolutely, they do. And then of course, there was a video that I made about what I think about the Second Amendment. Those videos all get censored, and what I think of about capitalism, that video got blocked.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you think about the Second Amendment?
Ms. Park: I of course support it. I don’t think there has been a bigger threat than government has been to the individuals, like Stalin killed his own people, right? Like Mao killed his own people. Look at Kim Jong-un. In a way the government are the most dangerous thing that we can have as individuals. They really are.
There’s the number one thing that we need to watch out for because they can do so many horrible things to you and your family. Think about it. Right now, at this time even, in Hong Kong, 75 percent of people went on the street to demand not to be part of mainland [China], right? Two systems, one country. And then because none of them had self defense, [the CCP] just took over like that. Even though the majority wanted [to preserve one country, two systems].
Think about North Korea. Even if just 30 or 40 percent of the population had guns, they would assassinate their leaders. They would assassinate Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-un couldn’t just do [what he does] to people. Ultimately you can say that, why wouldn’t Kim Jong-un go kill them all? But [inaudible] gonna go to different people, they’re gonna do way more harm to the regime, when they tried to take over the country completely, right?
You cannot kill all your people. Then who do you rule over, eventually? Nobody left there. So in a way even though your government has nukes, that’s what people are saying, okay, Kim Jong-un has nukes. And then [even if] these people have guns, they’re not going to make a difference. No, if Kim Jong-un nukes their own people, he’s going to die too. That’s the dumbest thing he could ever do, nuking his own people, while he himself is there. He cannot use a nuke against his own people.
So it’s so effective as a way of deterring the rise of dictatorship in your country, when the individuals have right to defend your rights and freedom. And seeing that in America, how the [thing that’s] most valuable about the Second Amendment is so lost. Freedom is messy. It’s not simple. Being free is a hard thing, right? It comes with a lot of responsibility, and in America I think people just really forgot it.
Mr. Jekielek: I know we share this belief that America is kind of the bulwark against the Chinese regime, which is certainly the most powerful regime out there.
Ms. Park: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: At the moment. And you’re saying things aren’t looking very good for America?
Ms. Park: Yes. I think if America is going this direction of not valuing freedom, right? How fragile freedom is. North Korea wasn’t like this, right? Until the Communist Revolution happened, we were not this oppressed. And Venezuela—I mean, I look at how many countries, Cuba, Venezuela were doing well before. That’s the sad thing about democracy. It seems like it’s possible for people to elect a dictator.
Mr. Jekielek: Right Nazi, Germany.
Ms. Park: Exactly, I mean, Hitler was voted by his own people. He was loved in the beginning. And that’s the thing, it is ultimately up to individuals to decide and learn about the history of humankind and the history of freedom and oppression. And then we vote responsibly. Otherwise freedom can be lost so easily within us.
Mr. Jekielek: We’ve been watching this, I guess you could say, flubbed exit from Afghanistan these last few days. Just as we’re taping this, it’s in the process of that. A lot of what I’m hearing is people saying: wow, I’ve lost a lot of faith in America through this. This is what I’m hearing in the dissident community. I’m hearing it from all sorts of people, but what’s your perspective?
Ms. Park: I mean, that’s the thing, like I gotta be really honest. I mean, Trump talked about that, right? He initially wanted to take off out of Afghanistan and then of course, Biden did follow up with the plan. That’s what he was saying yesterday on the live: that’s all I did, following up with the previous plan.
I mean, all it needed was like 2500 soldiers in there putting the American flag, right? Not that many people were left in Afghanistan, and they were saying we’re spending so much money over the last 20 years keeping that region safe.
In Kurdistan, when they left this Yazidi people, there was genocide, Girls were being sold as slaves to ISIS members. All the men get killed. This was only 2015 and 2016, just 5 or 6 years ago. We saw what happens when these soldiers leave these people behind.
Parties are so complicated and people always becoming this partisan thing. Because now Biden did [this, people think] you are the only bad thing. I don’t know if Trump was in office, if he would have left them or not, but ultimately Biden left them. And that’s why we’re blaming him at this point.
There should be some kind of responsible country in the world. It is somebody’s job to fight for justice. It doesn’t have to be America and America did play that role, right? Because this country was founded upon ideas of liberty and human dignity. That’s why America did play that role, the police role. …
And Americans now are [saying] even we are struggling within the country, right? I met so many struggling American families in the [middle of America], in Detroit, all those regions. They say: we just cannot afford it anymore; we are struggling. I am compassionate to those people, why they were saying “America First.” They are saying, we really need to be taken care of at this point; we are struggling too. In a way it’s such a complicated time.
Mr. Jekielek: Sure
Ms. Park: But what happened to Afghanistan is so horrible that it should not happen that way. It was so, so unbelievable. These people are going to die. So many of them are gonna die, for sure.
Mr. Jekielek: I guess what I’m asking is if America is supposed to be this bulwark against communist China, doing what it’s doing in the world. With North Korea being a premier example, right? I’m thinking to myself, has that equation changed at all in the last few days in your mind?
Ms. Park: I think yes and no. Ultimately, it’s gonna come to that. Are we going to, as a humanity, decide to be the slaves to the states, or will we still fight to be free as individuals. That is because the biggest two powers are rising in the world right now. That is America—still somewhat defending individual liberty—and China, [which says] no, no it’s okay. Government can do a better job for the bigger good of the people. So it’s okay to be in a big government who is maybe efficient enough to get the economy up and giving people what they need, lift them from the poverty, right? That’s at least what China keeps saying, that there’s a plural system, states can exist.
But the thing is, I think it should be some kind of coalition in the West, the countries that believe in democracy and freedom. It cannot be America alone fighting for this individual liberty at this point.
But even in South Korea right now—so many countries, even the Western European countries are ready to give up freedom and get a big, big government to supposedly take care of them.
It should be some global coalition. That’s what I see. I don’t think America single handedly can win this battle for sure. We need allies, and those allies like Japan, Taiwan, like South Korea, like the Western European, a lot of countries, still have those values.
I think America should be faithful to their allies. It cannot just abandon Afghanistan like that. And still you have to show that you stand for justice, right? It’s not just some efficiency or cost and what is good for Americans only. What is good for the entire humanity?
Are you doing the good thing, right thing, from God? I think it’s sad that as we progress with modernization, we are losing God, however you define God. I think God did play a significant role in us, keeping us being moral, being conscious, being kind, being compassionate, and being strong. And I see that in America, we are losing that.
That was the hardest thing after North Korea. How much do I want to adopt? How much do I want to take in from American culture? How much do I want to let go of my past? There are certain parts I don’t want to let go. There are parts from North Korea, I want to still keep. And there are some parts of America that I really love. I want to adjust and change, but not all of that in America was good to me, and I was able to develop the perspective and decide what was right for me. And I’m still in that process every single day.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s quite the process. … In the book you say that, when you were with these missionaries in China, you were ready to believe whatever was needed and you were going to believe it very deeply because that was going to get you out. It was an extremely pragmatic thing. Has any faith developed? You were just talking about God, but I don’t understand you to be a part of any religion. What is that evolution like here?
Ms. Park: I don’t know if you read the book. When those missionaries told me that I was guilty, I was dirty, because of the things that I had to do to survive in China, I was shocked, right? It was not my choice. All I did was try to survive. So of course it did not leave me a good impression from Christianity. It made me feel like they are so dogmatic, are so not understanding, not tolerating enough for me.
And then later I understood that they were actually the most selfless people I’ve ever met. They were in the middle of China, risking their lives to rescue North Koreans. And nobody knew we existed. Risking their own life. So you have to sometimes see their actions, not what they do or what they say, right?
And last year after I had my son, of course you see giving birth as a miracle. How otherwise do you explain that? And I definitely saw the role that God can play. And they say even science only understands 20 percent of the things that we understand now. We still don’t even know for sure if God made us or not, right? There’s so much unknown.
And I read a lot about Buddhism last year. Like you said, some parts of religion actually are not dogmatic and can free you. In Buddhism, the idea is there’s no pain, no suffering. It’s all about the ego and the self. That’s what creates suffering. And so part of it was definitely liberating.
So I think you don’t have to be dogmatic. Some extreme religion is so bad, but pursuing that higher morals, higher power can be a comforting thing. … Back then, I was an atheist. I opposed every kind of dogma, right? But now I do support those religions that open people’s minds and hearts.
Mr. Jekielek: How old are you again?
Ms. Park: I’m 27.
Mr. Jekielek: You seem to have lived many lifetimes already. I want to ask one thing, and a bit of a difficult thing as we’re kind of finishing up. There was a cost to you leaving North Korea, and you knew that. Your family could be—I don’t know what the situation is with your remaining family exactly.
Ms. Park: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: But, so what was the cost of that ultimately? And I guess I have to ask, do you feel it was worth it?
Ms. Park: Back when I was leaving, as I said, there were like almost 300,000 North Koreans left. During Kim Jong-il’s time, the second Kim, that’s when I left. Millions have died, like three to four million died in one part, the northern part where I lived. So even when you go to China, North Korea would not know that you went to China because you could just have died on the street from starvation. So it was so easy to hide where you went to. So that’s what we did.
But when I spoke out, that was the biggest miscalculation that I made. Even after I escaped and went to South Korea, I still kept in touch with my family, due to the brokers that I had, and they were fine. But when I spoke out, I was thinking they were all high-profile defectors, who are like the diplomats to North Korea, who escaped. Right?
I was thinking how can a regime be threatened by a 13-year-old girl? I was testifying what every North Korean said, there’s starvation, there’s oppression, right? I was not like revealing their nuclear program to the world at all. I just didn’t think I would be a threatening thing for the regime.
When I spoke out, that is when my family got punished on both sides, mom’s and dad’s side. And that’s when I was truly understanding the price of freedom. I knew that I was risking my own life. And I’m still on the target list by Kim Jong-un. Of course, South Korean intelligence informed me that many, many years ago, but I just didn’t think the regime would go that far because of my testimony.
I also got comfortable with being in the outside world and then forgetting what the true evil looked like. This is what I was saying. The Americans’ inability to recognize true evil, which is in China, the people’s inability because they have never seen the darkness truly. Right?
These people live in such a light, in such a good environment. They don’t know how something can be that terrible. And I think for me too, I saw it. This is an unbelievably cruel regime. And then after I went to South Korea, [I thought]: why would they just go after some 13-year-old’s testimony? There were a lot of North Korean defectors speaking out in South Korean TV Shows and nothing happened to them. That’s where I completely miscalculated.
Mr. Jekielek: Before we finish up. Tell me quickly, where can people watch your YouTube channel?
Ms. Park: They can go to Voice of North Korea, by Yeonmi Park. And they can find me YeonmiParkNK on Twitter and Instagram. Not on TikTok. I’m on Facebook, yeah, all the social media you can think of.
Mr. Jekielek: And you also have a Locals site, I believe, right?
Ms. Park: Yes. It’s been amazing to support this platform that is like valuing freedom of speech. I’ve been trying out Locals, and it’s been fantastic.
Mr. Jekielek: So, any final, last words before we finish?
Ms. Park: Thank you for everything that you do. It’s so amazing to meet people like you. Yes, so refreshing.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s so kind, and it’s likewise, incredibly amazing to meet someone like you. It’s such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Ms. Park: Thank you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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