North Korea is a country known for being a police state with few freedoms for its people and punishments akin to those of the Nazi regime. Human rights abuses are rampant but those who try to leave the country know they not only risk their own lives but the lives of their families. Yueonmi Park was just a young girl when she escaped North Korea, but the journey was far from easy.
Yeonmi was just a child when her father was imprisoned for illegal trading (he had been trading metal to the Chinese to keep his family from starving). He was given a sentence of 17 years but bribed his way out after 3. However, the years of torture and poor nutrition had taken it’s toll and he was diagnosed with colon cancer. So Yeonmi’s family decided to escape North Korea and try to make a life for themselves elsewhere.
Yeonmi and her mother went alone, leaving her father behind. They wanted to look for Yeonmi’s sister who had left in the middle of the night without telling anyone. Yeonmi’s father stayed behind so as to limit suspicion. If they were caught all of them would be killed or imprisoned for life.
In the freezing cold Yeonmi and her mother crossed the frozen river that forms North Korea’s border with China. Guards patrol the river but the pair were lucky to avoid detection. Once in China they began the search for Yeonmi’s sister, looking for the human smugglers who illegally get North Koreans out of China. China’s government is on friendly terms with North Korea and will return any defectors they find within their borders. So North Koreans pay huge sums to get safe passage out of the country. Asking the smugglers does not give any leads to Yeonmi’s sister. One smuggler told them he would turn them into Chinese authorities unless he could have sex with Yeonmi. Her mother offers herself instead. Yeonmi watched her mother’s rape.
Yeonmi’s father eventually joins them and the family decides not to return to North Korea. A distant relative helps them find a room but with no money, the family cannot even afford water or electricity. The horrible conditions are hard on Yeonmi’s father who succumbs to his cancer. Yeonmi and her mother bribed a crematorium to burn his body at night to avoid getting caught by Chinese authorities. They bury his ashes in a mountain side.
He was only 45 years old.
Yeonmi and her mother knew they had to get out of China.