I struggled with what to write in this book review. What can be said about North Korea that hasn’t already been said? Their fat bombastic leader with a bad haircut making outlandish threats. State media falling for a not-to-subtle parody by The Onion naming the latest Kim “The sexiest man in the world.” Stories of state-sanctioned rape and starvation and prison camps that dwarf even Nazi atrocities – especially when considered through their longevity. The bizarre making common cause with the brutal in relegating the reality of normal life for North Koreans to some sort of Orwellian novel or Hollywood movie. It’s easier that way, isn’t it? We don’t have to care. We don’t have to do anything.
Enter Yeonmi Park. Petit, unassuming, unthreatening, happy even (or at least perhaps joyful). Totally free from hate as she narrates a story of resilience against such profound evil that it sent shivers down my spine the entire time I read and made me tear up more than once.
This story is about hunger and starvation. Not the kind of hunger when we say “I’m starving” after finishing a good workout or skip a meal to finish a project. Real, mind numbing all-consuming hunger when it is the only motivating force and instructs every decision. This kind of hunger most of us do not know about – I sure don’t. Because it’s a hunger that is more than physical – the hunger explained in Yeonmi’s remarkable story is one of mental starvation as well. About a people fed on a diet of lies and double-speak to confuse and control; where even a bad movie like “The Titanic” – pirated and smuggled and watched with one eye toward the door wary of the police – can spark an awakening. The hunger of the soul where Christian faith is not forbidden, it is simply unknown – lest people look to the hereafter and gain the courage to defy their leaders.
It is also a story about violence and control. Physical violence – prison camps and torture and rape. But also the numbing violence of constant panic that leaves the five senses muted, for fear that the dictatorship might see in an emotion not at the service of the “great leader” a sign of disloyalty and treason. Mind control so sophisticated and bizarre that it left me scratching my head. Radios welded to only one channel and left on in the homes – upon pain of violence – in the off chance that the “great leader” had something to say. Fear of your neighbor lest they turn you in. Parents fearing children, children fearing parents. Rewards and punishments and investigations – constant investigations.
But those things are only the backdrop of this story – which is what makes it more amazing. Because it is a story of resilience, yes. But this is not a great story of the past that we look at and admire, like Mandela or Mother Theresa – a story polished by time. This is the story of Yeonmi Park – a young adult often on Facebook – and the decisions she made and the terrible situations she encountered along her path to freedom. It is a story about today, ending up in places I have been and even with some people I know. As I read this story I would come across individual dates and I found myself comparing what I was doing while this little North Korean child was hunting the North Korean hills for insects to fill her belly or helping a Chinese trafficker sell women or crawling across the Gobi desert. I must admit it was sobering.
Perhaps most important of all is that it is not a story told with hate or bitterness – not even against those terrible men who have brutally enslaved a whole country for almost a century. I would venture to say that it is because Yeonmi Park has won. She broke the physical hold of the Kims when she fled their dominion – at great personal cost and risk. She broke the chokehold of fear when she stood up to them and told them she would not be silent about what they had done and continue to do. But most importantly she seems to understand that through her hate the Kims would continue to control her, and through acts of personal faith and prayer she has denied the hate a place in her soul. She does not use the word “forgiveness” in the book – yet if actions speak louder than words then Yeonmi Park has found it in her heart to forgive the evil men who sought to control her and still seek to destroy her.
Yes, this is a remarkable book – and I encourage each of you to read it. Struggle with the great concepts of liberty and reason and legitimacy and democracy – and violence. Place yourself in the story, imagining how you might act – find empathy. And most importantly do not let this little girl who has become a woman fight alone; find a way to lend your voice and your hand to the struggle of a people yearning to be free.