“I didn’t know I was praying to a dictator”: North Korean defector tells horrifying details of life under the brutal regime

by Peter Heck · Sep 4th, 2020 8:24 am

Last Updated Sep 5th, 2020 at 3:18 am

Yeonmi Park, a 26-year-old defector from North Korea, is now a human rights activist based in Chicago, sharing her story of what life was like under one of the world's worst dictatorial regimes.

Calling it a modern-day Holocaust, Park describes a life with no electricity and passing lifeless bodies of freezing and starving people on the streets. Families are forbidden to show affection to one another, instead reserving that emotion only for the supreme leader.

"What you need to know about North Korea is that it's not like other countries like Iran or Cuba," she said. "In those countries, you have some kind of understanding that they are abnormal, they are isolated, and the people are not safe. But North Korea has been so completely purged from the rest of the world, it's literally a Hermit Kingdom. When I was growing up there, I didn't know that I was isolated, I didn't know that I was praying to a dictator."

Like all children, Park and her sister were taught that dictator Kim Jong Un — and before him, Kim Jong Il — were gods who could read the minds of citizens. Such instruction keeps the masses in check, denying the desire to speak out or even think poorly of the country's leaders, lest they are met with wrath.

In schools, young people are taught to hate America, but also to distrust and dislike their own classmates. Park detailed the ritual of "criticism sessions" where students were forced to find fault with their classmates for the sole purpose of depriving them of loyalties and friendships.

"We don't have friends in North Korea. We only have comrades. There's no concept of friends," she said.

In a recent interview Park noted that while North Korea has spent billions of dollars on its nuclear program, roughly 40% of the country's population is starving.

Park escaped with her mother across the Yalu River into China. Both were sold into human trafficking, before engaging in a futile search for her older sister. Park's father eventually escaped North Korea as well, but died not long after of colon cancer.

Christian missionaries helped Park and her mother flee to Mongolia before eventually finding their way into the refuge of South Korea. There they were miraculously reunited with Park's sister.

Even now, her devotion to speaking out against the North Korean regime comes with considerable risk, both to her and her family, many of whom have disappeared.

"I don't know if they've been executed or sent to prison camps, so I'm still not free. Even after I went through all of that to be free, I'm not free to dictators there. So it's a very emotional thing for me," she said.


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