Last week, Yeonmi Park visited Cushing. Park is the author of Cushing’s common reading book, In Order to Live, about her escape from an oppressive regime in North Korea. Today, Park is a junior at Columbia University, studying economics. She’s also a human rights activist and spends many weekends traveling to speak.
During an all-school gathering in Cowell Chapel, she noted that she was about the same age as the youngest students in the audience when she fled North Korea with her mother. In her book she tells of the degradations she and her mother faced as they escaped into China, where they lived for two years, before finally making it to South Korea.
As a child, she didn’t know she wasn’t living in freedom. In school, she learned little about world geography beyond her own country, its enemies—America, Japan, and South Korea—and China, which she could see across the river that ran through her village. Her village had unreliable electricity and she and she sometimes had to eat grasshoppers for meals. Taking a bath was for special occasions like holidays and birthdays. It never occurred to her to protest these conditions. The purpose of her life—and everyone else’s—was to serve the leader. Families were punished for not conforming.
Growing up, she had occasional access to American movies—which were old by the time she got to see them—and some kinds of TV. Her parents liked professional American wrestling and Park believed that all American men looked like those wrestlers. Her favorite movie was Titanic, although she couldn’t imagine dying for love; she could only imagine dying for the leader.
When she and her mother escaped, they had no food and no plan. They simply knew they had to escape. They crossed the frozen river, evading the Korean guards who would have shot them on sight. According to her story, she and her mother became victims of human traffickers in China and it was two years before she made it to South Korea.
She was told that once she was in South Korea, she would be free. To her, freedom meant being able to wear jeans and watch any movie she wanted. She had to learn that it mattered what she thought. She had to learn to be free.
Once in South Korea, she began to advance her education, and she was particularly inspired by George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, because in that book, the animals had more rights than she had had in her village in North Korea. “We are all the same,” she told the Cushing students. “We had the same desires, ambitions, and dreams as you, but we were prevented from getting them by the leader.”
Following her talk, some questions from the Cushing community, and a standing ovation, many students gathered to speak with her, ask for her autograph, and pose for photos. In fact, there were so many who wished to meet with her, that a group was able to gather with Park in the library for an informal and engaging discussion later that evening.