Last week as I was tuning in to listen to one my favourite sources of thinking, the podcast by the most influential public intellectual of the west of our times, the Canadian professor of psychology, clinical psychologist, and bestselling author of “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” Mr. Jordan Peterson, my plans were completely ruined.
Shocked by the details of a road less travelled by his guest, I was forever changed and led back to reconnect with my deepest intention for a life of public speaking and helping to support our fragile values of life, all due to the incomparable spirit of his guest, Mrs. Yeonmi Park.
Although her physical transformation deluded me momentarily, beyond that heavy make up she was still the North Korean defector and human rights activist trying to shine a light on the atrocities committed in our modern world.
When I first saw her, I was one of the fifty million people that watched her speech at the One Young World 2014 Summit in Dublin, Ireland. In two days she became instantly famous and for all the right reasons; its hard to even put in words her story now heard by 350 million souls in the world.
Born in 1993 in North Korea she was raised under the regime of a punishing totalitarian society; she describes a life where her people was literally starving, surviving for many years by eating grasshoppers and other insects for their protein intake and suffering many body deficiencies because of their malnutrition, eventually dying on the streets. A society where they were literally no words in the language to explain let alone express notions such as romantic love, dignity and human rights; a daily reality of total information control, with no bad news ever, no education, very low literacy, no internet, no electricity in the night, no private property, and a class system that you were defined by birth till the day you died. A system with no freedom to self-determination, where everything, including the length of your skirt and the song you were listening was decided by the regime under the force of your execution.
He father was involved to black market not as an act of trade or profit but as an act of freedom against the regime, resulting in his imprisonment and torture at concentration camps, where according to her “he lost himself and became hollow and empty and guilty till the day he died for not being a good revolutionary”. Soon after at the age of 13 she and her mother were forced to escape to China, not knowing what freedom is, just hoping to get some food to eat, bribing the national guards, surviving the frontier’s mines and crossing a frozen river.
She describes a trafficking system supported by China Republic, where she was forced to see her mother raped in front of her, so she would not, and then her body and teeth were examined as they did for slaves, as precious human commodities, since there is a heavy demand of North Korean women in rural China for labour and sex. They both became slaves. According to a survey conducted by the North Korean Refugees Foundation approximately 71% of the 300.000 North Koreans defectors since 1998 are female; if they were virgin women they were priced and sold at 300 dollars and the rest to 100 dollars forced mainly to work in prostitution and sex industry.
She was sold separately from her mother and became a sex slave in China. She finally had something to eat but this is the time she wanted to die; because she lost everything. Jordan’s asked her why she decided to live and she said it was not for her; it was for her family. So at 14 she became the mistress to her trafficker, a violent gambler, still suffering nightmares of him, so he would buy back her mother and save her father from North Korea. In retrospect, she is now helping him and when asked why she explains that nobody is pure evil and nobody is pure angel, because as much evil as he was he still was the one that saved her parents. Because “life it’s not that like simple” she says.
Later she had to sell her mother because her trafficker lost all of his money on gambling and they could not eat again, and started to work in sex chat rooms to avoid prostitution while fighting to survive. She connected with some Chinese Christians in hope of getting help to discover that she had to proof faith to them, while she was called dirty by the pastor, and that her sins would never be washed; “called like that was actually a lot harder in some ways than my journey, because I did those things to survive; my father was always telling me life is a gift, you have to fight for it no matter how hard it is, you should never give up on life” confesses in tears.
Crying out, she states that it is so hard to understand humanity because her trafficker actually cared more about life and he risked things for people and never named her instead of those Christian’s, with their flowery loving language which condemned her and naming her for all her hard efforts to stay alive.
Finding help from another group, she travelled with a small group of refugees through a frozen Kobi dessert, escaping to Mongolia, by a seer miracle not frozen to death, interrogated by the authorities, almost committing suicide to prove that they were not spies and finally identified as a refugee, relocated to South Korea. There she took a three month training period to integrate to society, to learn what a bank is, how to ride the bus and subway, to realize the massive difference between North Korea and the rest of the world, that everything they were told was a lie, questioning ever again what people told her was a lie or not.
It was then that she came across George Orwell’s book “Animal Farm” that she realized that it was not just the regime; it is everybody that supports this system “by keeping silent”, because when “you know that you are oppressed you are not oppressed. Real oppressed people don’t even know that they are oppressed, how life can be different”, she firmly states.
That is when she realized that “everybody is responsible” and made a conscious decision to speak out. “Why?” she was asked, and she replied genuinely “because I knew the price of silence”. “We did not know that we were slaves in North Korea. How do you fight to be free when you don’t know you are a slave?”
At defector’s school at sixteen she tested to the learning ability of a seven year old child and started studying because of her thirst of knowledge. She was reading a hundred books a year, collapsing to the emergency hospital, obsessed by reading, forgetting to eat, hungrier for knowledge than for food, having starved for both, while facing strong discrimination because she was a North Korean refugee. She kept reading and reading despite all voices telling her that she was going to fail. She concluded elementary to high school in just one year and went to the highly competitive Korean university at the age of 17, and graduated thirstiest out of some hundreds. She confessed that learning the concept takes you longer than learning the language, as it took her a while to understand what gay is, laundry mat is, shopping mall is because these things did not exist in North Korea. Also, going back to Animal Farm, “who controls the language control thoughts” for example North Korea regime eliminated purposefully the words like stress “because how can you be stressed in this social paradise?” or depression, drama etc.
She started studying Criminal Justice with a strong drive to see how this thing works while working at the same time as the North Korean Paris Hilton at a local tv station, hoping that through public exposure she could be recognized by her lost at that time sister and to be reunited with her, which finally happened. While working at the show she realized that other defectors had it even more difficult.
She applied to become a delegate speaker for the Youth Leadership Summit in Europe not at out of ambition to become viral just so she could travel to Europe, every young Korean student’s dream. She shared how the Chinese people treated them as defectors at the fear of upsetting the Chinese regime.
By accident she says she became viral and got a book offer, her agent being in New York. And then applied to Columbia New York University to study.
She calls her four years at Columbia as a complete madness and how she became very pessimist for the western world after those studies. She describes a situation of political correctness combined by her difficulty in English that resulted in realizing that she better shut up to get a good GPA; “in those 4 years I learned how to censor myself over again” “I literally risked my life to say what I think is right and here I was in a country learning how to be creative in a safe space and be sensitive enough but while censoring myself; it gave me a lot of chaos, did I become free? Is there a truly free place in this world right now? Columbia Uni was very much into shaping how you should think.
She admits that she stayed at Columbia University because it was her late father’s dream to get a university degree but she considers it a waste of time, energy and money.
“It is a suicide of our civilization, like we are killing ourselves here” .
She warns the world for the upcoming terror that lings upon humanity any given day: “if no one is free in this world, who is going to fight for us, that’s my terror for me, imagine all of us becoming enslaved like in North Korea, all being in the system, there is no one who can stand for any of us. So maybe this is a mentality in the west that freedom was always going to be there, miraculously always going to be there”.
Jordan apologized to her with sobbing eyes that the prestigious and good schools of the west failed her and rushed to agree that “we were supposed to be teaching and educate younger people that no it’s not always going to be there, it’s fragile and you better take care of it because the default condition is authoritarian starvation”
Being on the “killing list of the regime for a while, she says “if I am lucky enough not to get killed, I want to do everything I can to raise awareness about Chinese role on enabling this dictatorship. People think that a person is the one to blame for running the biggest concentration camp on earth, but he is not, the enabler behind is China. It’s a crime against humanity. All nations in the world should tell that to China but now every nation in the world is bought by China. This is a very serious situation we are in, this is not a joke. In the past we thought that democracy was going to prevail but in China they have now AI to facially recognize all citizens like 1984 Orwell’s to see who is there. I can be that person that recklessly says that we will win this battle, this is a very dangerous state, we are all in this collectively, everywhere in the world, we are not safe from this”.
When I watch a person being on a killing list, surviving all horrors of life, and speak constantly about human values, when I think that the majority of surgical masks used during the pandemic is manufactured in China, when I think that the largest ports, energy infrastructures and landmarks in different countries around the world are partialy sold to Chinese companies, when I think of the insurrection scenes of 2020 to USA Capitolium, knowing that the USA ex-president had personal connections with the leader of this regime, I am reminded that we don’t speak for the fan of it, for our work or amusement or to contact just our daily business. We speak because our values of human decency are extremely fragile. We speak because we don’t want to have to live the price of silence, not even at a fraction of Yeonmi’s Park case.
We need to speak up, to speak frequently and speak purposefully.
Our values are fragile. And so is our life.