North Korean defector, New York Times bestselling author addresses Utah community at UVU

Yeonmi Park, North Korean defector and American, shares her journey to find freedom at UVU on Feb. 7. She spoke to a large crowd of UVU and BYU students and others. (Lauren Willardson).

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North Korean defector Yeonmi Park addressed students, members of the Utah State Legislature, Orem and Provo city councils and former Gov. Gary Herbert at UVU on Feb. 7.

The event was hosted by UVU’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, with help from the Provo YAF chapter as well. The Orem and Provo area showed up in large numbers, with standing room only in the auditorium, and overflow continuing into the hall outside. 

According to Michael Erickson, chairman for the UVU chapter of YAF, this event was two years in the making.

Michael Erickson of UVU YAF conducts the event for Yeonmi Parker. Park shared her story with an audience on Feb. 7.(Lauren Willardson).

“After I heard Yeonmi speak for the first time, I knew I had to bring her to UVU,” Erickson said.

Yeonmi Park shared her life’s story as one of only 209 North Koreans that have escaped to America in the last 80 years. Born in late 1993, Park said she grew up under dictator Kim Jung Un, with the government brainwashing children in schools and starving millions with food control. 

She noted that the very first thing her mother taught her as a young girl was that she should not even whisper, for fear that birds or mice would hear her. 

“If I said one wrong word, that was going to kill up to three to eight generations of my family, from both my mom and my dad’s side,” Park said. “Very early on I learned … there’s no point of thinking, right? One wrong word can get all of you killed, why do you even bother to think?”

By the time she reached age 13, Park shared she was very malnourished and could not find any more grasshoppers or dragonflies to eat. She said she saw the lights coming from China in the distance and thought that if she could get to the lights, she could find food to survive. 

Yeonmi Park addresses the audience at UVU. There was standing room only in the auditorium. (Lauren Willardson).

“In North Korea, you don’t escape for freedom because you don’t even have the word ‘free’ there,” Park said. “So this time at 13 escaping from North Korea, I wasn’t searching for freedom. I wasn’t searching for anything other than a bowl of rice.”

Park said she eventually escaped to China with her mother, only to find the woman who helped with the escape was selling them to human traffickers upon arrival. She said her mother was bought for $65, and she was bought for more than $200.

“As soon as we got to China, the first thing I saw was my mother being raped, and at the time as a North Korean girl we didn’t have sex education, so I did not even know what sex was,” Park said.

After 2 years of this slavery and at the age of 15, Park said she miraculously met Christian missionaries coming from South Korea who explained the concept of freedom to her for the very first time.

Yeonmi Park answered questions for approximately 30 minutes following the event.Park shared her story with an audience on Feb. 7. (Lauren Willardson).

“I asked them, ‘How can I do that, how can I be free?’” Park said. “And she said, ‘Well, it takes God, because you have to walk across the Gobi Desert from China to Mongolia. You have to cross 16 wire fences in negative 40 degrees Celsius. And if you don’t get killed in any of that, you might be able to go to South Korea from Mongolia.’”

With less than 1% chance of survival, Park said, she survived the desert and arrived in South Korea. 

“I thought this was my freedom moment, that my journey to freedom kind of ended. But when I got to South Korea, I learned this lesson: it’s not easy to be free. It’s exhausting to be free,” Park said, describing the transition to being responsible for her life after always just being told how to live.

After five years of “learning freedom,” Park said she continued to the U.S. to study at Columbia University.

When she arrived, Park said she was shocked to see 21st century America teaching similar principles to those she was taught in North Korea, with many friends in favor of trying socialism and overthrowing America’s capitalist approach to create a more fair society. 

Former Governor Gary Herbert and wife greet Yeonmi Park. Park shared her story with an audience on Feb. 7. (Lauren Willardson).

“You don’t need to be all equally poor and starving together,” Park said, speaking of a capitalist society. “In fact, the sign of inequality is not a sign of oppression, it’s a sign of progress … What a concept! Seriously, what a thing to celebrate — that you can rise up!”

Park ended her remarks by praising America as the “only hope” and the “last hope” for freedom in the world. 

“My worth was not even $300, but in America, I have rights that were given by God. When I read the Constitution, I could not believe it. This U.S. Constitution says that you have rights that were given by God — not by your state, not by your men, but by your Ultimate Creator of this universe. No state can take away from you, and that’s America,” Park said. 

After the event, former Utah Governor Gary Herbert said, “She’s done a wonderful job in telling her story and inspiring other people about freedom and liberty that we too often take for granted as American citizens.”

Park said she hopes all who were not able to attend will join her to fight for freedom in America.

The Provo YAF chapter presidency gifts Yeonmi Park a copy of the Book of Mormon and roses. Park shared her story with an audience on Feb. 7. (Lauren Willardson).
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