In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

“I realised that without the whole truth my life would have no power, no real meaning… The process of writing has been the processes of remembering, and of trying to make sense out of those memories. I understand that sometimes the only way we can survive our own memories is to shape them into a story that makes sense out of events that seem inexplicable.”

Notoriously repressive, brutal and secretive, it’s not hard to comprehend why anyone would want to escape North Korea – to the extent that they would risk everything to make the treacherous journey across the Yalu river, the narrow expanse of water that separates North Korea from China.

This is the journey that Yeonmi Park braves at the age of 13, swapping the known hell of one totalitarian regime for the unknown hell of another. The memoir is divided into three; the first part tells of her life in North Korea as a child; the horrors of famine and torture amongst the simple pleasures of playing with her sister and watching Hollywood movies smuggled into the country (‘Titanic’ is her favourite). It might seem hard to imagine such things coexisting, but in such circumstances, you find happiness wherever you can.

When things become unbearable in her home country, she plans to escape into China, and this forms the second part of her story. But no one could prepare her for what awaits, as she becomes a victim of human trafficking who is sold to buyers down the chain. The gender imbalance in China, particularly in rural areas, has left many single men unable to find a wife – so there is a high price put on Korean brides.

It might seem like a catalogue of horrors, but Yeonmi’s spirit and resilience shines through, and by the time we reach the third and final part of the memoir, rays of optimism for the future begin to break through – we cling to the hope of a happy ending for her and her family as they begin a new life in South Korea.

I saw Yeonmi Park giving a talk on YouTube earlier in the year, and it was unbearably moving. I can’t with a clear conscience give this book anything other than five stars as Yeonmi’s strength and courage, in the face of unbelievably harrowing experiences, should be an inspiration to us all.

The brutalities described in this memoir; the rape, torture, starvation, executions sometimes feel like too much to bear. But despite this, our young heroine’s relentless perseverance, even in the darkest of times, becomes the guiding light through an otherwise merciless journey. And despite the piling on of horror upon horror, it never seems exaggerated or implausible. Partly this is because I know enough of North Korea to know that what Yeonmi describes is true, and partly because her voice has a refreshing honesty to it; she is self-reflective and wise beyond her years.

Some parts of the story are hazy, sometimes the retelling is detached – almost clinically so – but if you criticise the book on this basis then you have missed a vital point. We tell ourselves stories in order to live; we do what we can to conceptualise our existence and make sense of our experiences. For Yeonmi, if this means keeping a certain distance between herself and her narrative; by not dwelling in indulgent detail on the horrors she has experienced, then that should be respected.

Yeonmi should be an inspiration to us all.


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