The Strange Tale of Yeonmi Park

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The Strange Tale of Yeonmi Park

A high-profile North Korean defector has harrowing stories to tell. But are they true?

The Strange Tale of Yeonmi Park
Credit: Yeonmi Park at the One Young World Summit

When 21-year-old North Korean defector, Yeonmi Park, made her debut on the world stage in October this year with harrowing tales of life under the repressive North Korean regime and her perilous escape to freedom, she left audiences, human rights heavyweights, and journalists in tears – some literally sobbing.

Wearing a pink, traditional Korean dress with its high waist and voluminous skirt, Park stood before the lectern at the One Young World Summit in Dublin and in between long pauses, wiping tears from her eyes and holding her hand to her mouth as she composed herself, she told of being brainwashed; of seeing executions; of starving; of the slither of light in her darkness when she watched the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic, and had her mind opened to the outside world where love was possible; of having to watch her mother being raped; of burying her father on her own at just 14; and of threatening to kill herself rather than allow Mongolian soldiers to send her back to North Korea. She talked about following the stars to freedom and then ended with her signature sign off, “When I was crossing the Gobi desert, scared of dying, I thought nobody cares, but you have listened to my story. You have cared.”

You’d have to have been inhuman not to be moved. But – and you’re going to hear a lot of “buts” – was the story she told of her life in North Korea accurate? The more speeches and interviews I read, watch and hear Park give, the more I become aware of serious inconsistencies in her story that suggest it wasn’t. Whether this matters is up to the reader to decide, but my concern is if someone with such a high profile twists their story to fit the narrative we have come to expect from North Korean defectors, our perspective of the country could become dangerously skewed. We need to have a full and truthful picture of life in North Korea if we are to help those living under its abysmally cruel regime and those who try to flee.

“Celebrity Defector”

I met Yeonmi Park a few months ago when I spent two weeks filming a story about her and her family for Australia’s SBS Dateline. We called the story, “Celebrity Defector.”

Back in South Korea where she now lives, Park is one of the stars of a television program featuring a cast of North Korean women. It’s called “Now On My Way To Meet You” and it daringly satirizes the Kim Dynasty. The women tell personal anecdotes about their lives in North Korea and their journey to the south. A number of the women were introduced to us as having been homeless and starving – the reason they fled.

Buried in the shows archives are some snapshots of Park’s childhood in North Korea that explain why she’s known on the show as the Paris Hilton of North Korea. They’re in sharp contrast to the story she’s now telling her international audience.

In one episode in early 2013 she appears with her mother. Family photographs are flashed on the screen and Park jokes, “That’s my Mum there. She’s beautiful right? To be honest, I’m not the Paris Hilton. My mum is the real Paris Hilton.”

Park then goes on to point out the top and chequered pants her mother is wearing “were all imported from Japan” and adds, “My mum even carried around a Chanel bag in North Korea,” to which the host responds incredulously, “There are Chanel bags in North Korea?” Park tells him there are and he then asks another woman if she’d classify Park’s family as “rich.” The woman answers, “Yes, that’s right.”

Park told us in her interview her father was a member of the Workers’ party, as were all the men in her family, and that she expected to study medicine at university and marry a man of the same ilk or higher. She described her father to us as “a very free man” who was critical of the regime. She said when reports of Kim Jong Il’s daily activities would come on the television and the announcer would say “because of his mercy we are having a good life” her father would sometimes say, “Oh shut up, turn off the TV.” Park says her mother would chastise him for saying such things in front of her and her sister and so she learnt early on it was dangerous to criticize the regime and to speak about her father’s disloyalty to others.

Park’s mother told us of a day when her husband pointed to the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hanging on their walls and said, “Our struggles are caused by these men.” She said she was terrified he would say something outside their house, but told us she knew a few people who shared her husband’s views. Other North Korean defectors from Hyesan, the northern city that borders China where Park and her family hail from, have also told me that after the great famine in the mid nineties, there was growing dissent, albeit, quiet and kept within immediate families.

Born in 1993, Park was a baby at the height of the famine. In July this year in Seoul, at an event organized by Liberty North Korea, a NGO that helps refugees, she told the audience she had no interest in learning about the Kims as a child at school, telling the audience, “that was nothing special for me because I have so much fun playing with my friends, like to go hiking, to the riverside, swimming…”

When Park was nine, which would have been around 2002, she says she saw her best friend’s mother executed at a stadium in Hyesan. But, according to several North Korean defectors from Hyesan who didn’t want to be identified for fear of reprisal, public executions only ever took place on the outskirts of the city, mostly at the airport, never in the stadium or streets, and there were none after 2000 – the last they recall was a mass execution of ten or eleven people in 1999.

Park’s account of the mother’s crime changes constantly, depending it seems on her audience. In Europe recently she claimed the woman was executed for watching a James Bond movie and sometimes, less specifically, a Hollywood movie. But in Hong Kong a few months ago, she told an audience the woman had been caught watching South Korean DVDs. Irish Independent journalist, Nicola Anderson, in a recent online video interview with Park seemed confused and asked her, “It was a movie from South Korea wasn’t it?” Park’s response was, “No, Hollywood movie, James Bond.”

One of the world’s leading authorities on North Korea, is Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. Born in the Soviet Union, he was an exchange student in North Korea during the 1980s and has interviewed hundreds of defectors as part of his research. He says, “I am very, very skeptical whether watching a Western movie would lead to an execution. An arrest for such action is possible indeed, but still not very likely.”

He says the sorts of crimes that result in public execution are, “Murder, large-scale theft, especially of the government property, sometimes involvement with large-scale smuggling operations, including human trafficking.”

A 59-year-old woman from Hyesan who escaped in 2009 laughed when asked was anyone ever executed for watching an American movie. “How can you be executed for watching an American film? It sounds ridiculous even saying it. That has never happened before. I go to church with around 350 defectors and you ask any one of them and they will say exactly the same thing,” she told us over the phone from South Korea. Other defectors confirmed this. The Hyesan woman went on to say that people who were caught watching South Korean dramas were not executed, but were sentenced to three to seven years in a correctional center where the treatment was horrendous. “You don’t know when you will die,” she said.

In 2003, when she was ten, Park tells of how her world came crashing down when her father was arrested in Pyongyang for illegal trading. According to Park’s mother he’d begun trading illegally between China and North Korea in 1999 when Kim Jong Il stopped providing rations and ceased spying on businesses. His conviction meant other family members were also criminals and their position in society plummeted. “Then our destiny was clear, I was going to be a farmer. There’s no way I can get into university,” Park told us.

Park says her father was sentenced to 17 or 18 years in prison. Her mother told us he was initially sentenced to a year, but later it was increased to ten years. The discrepancies between the lengths of sentence are neither here nor there, but the family story does become murky and rather mercurial from here on.

Park’s mother told us prosecutors interrogated her on and off for about a year – sometimes at home in Hyesan and sometimes elsewhere, because she had worked in her husband’s trading business. But, in a recent BBC radio interview, Park claimed her mother was imprisoned for six months because she went to live back in her hometown after her husband was jailed and “because in North Korea there is no freedom of movement, not freedom of speech… it was against the law for the movement and that’s why she went to prison for half a year.”

When she spoke with us, Park told of how her and her sister, at just nine and eleven, were left to fend for themselves after their parents were jailed. “We couldn’t go to school… we just go down to the riverside and we have shower and wash our clothes there and then we go to the mountain to get the grass to eat,” she said. But, in the BBC radio interview, Park claimed her sister went to live at her uncle’s house and she went to live at her aunt’s house in the countryside for three years. She told of how while she was there she ate wild food “like grass or sometimes dragonflies… just anything that I could eat at that time.” Just two days later she told the Irish Independent, as she had told us, that she and her sister survived by finding food to eat and had to learn how to cook for themselves. When asked by the reporter, “Were there any adults that knew you were alone?” Park answered, “No, people were dying there, they don’t care. I saw lots of dead bodies on the street and nobody can take care of anybody.”

But go back through the archives of the South Korean television show, Now On My Way To Meet You, in which Park stars, and in the same episode referred to previously, the host of the show says to Park’s mother, “When we talk about stories of people eating grass or people struggling to eat, Yeju (Park’s pseudonym) says, ‘Oh that never happened…’ Why is that? Did Yeju never go through these experiences?

Park’s mother replies, “We were not to that extent. We were just never in a position where we were starving.”

The next part of their exchange is equally enlightening.

Park’s mother goes on to say, “So when Yeju started working for this program, I think she became more aware of the situation in North Korea.”

The host responds, “It sounds like Yeju learnt heaps on this program.”

And Park’s mother says, “She calls me before and after a show recording, asking me, ‘Am I really North Korean?’ She says she has no idea what the other girls on the show are talking about. She says she thinks everyone is lying on the show.”

Park also co-hosts a video podcast about North Korea for a for-profit libertarian organization in Seoul called the Freedom Factory. On the August 18 show, Casey Lartigue, her American co-host, asks Park to tell him about the tough times she experienced as a child in North Korea. In response, she makes no mention of eating grass and dragonflies, just that she could only afford two meals a day and compared to the others who lived on the streets and “eat everything” her hardships were “nothing” – “It was heartbreaking to see them,” she says.

In telling of her escape from North Korea, Park often says she crossed three or even four mountains during the night to get to the border and describes the pain she endured because her shoes had holes in them. However, Hyesan where Park was living is right on the river that divides the two countries and there are no mountains to cross.

Park told us and a libertarian radio station in San Francisco earlier this year that four days after her older sister fled the country, she and her mother and father crossed to China together. Her exact words in the radio interview were, “I escaped with my mum and father – the three of us.” In her interview with us she recalled the feeling she had as she crossed the river, “I had to survive. I had to really live. And with that thought I just run, like really faster and my mum was behind and my father was there and then we all escape. And there were cars to get us because of the connections [her father’s business connections] with Chinese people and then we went to China directly.”

But at the Young One World Summit in Dublin, Park told the appalling tale of her and her mother escaping alone and her watching her mother being raped by a Chinese broker in order to protect her from the same fate.

Then there are the facts surrounding her father’s burial in China. Park told us that at just fourteen, fearing being caught by Chinese authorities, she had to dispose of her father’s body in the middle of the night. “We had to move his body, everybody’s sleeping and then I buried him, like on midnight, by myself and I was sitting there, it was cold and there was nobody,” she explained as she wept. Her mother added more detail. “We paid two people to help carry his body up the mountain. Yeonmi went with them. It was so windy that day and we were so afraid that someone would see them,” she said.

But Park has told other reporters her father was cremated and she had to dispose of the ashes on her own. And there’s another variation: According to sources in the North Korean community, a few years ago Park told them she was unable to take her father’s body to a proper crematorium and so her relatives (her father has relatives in China) helped her to cremate his body and they all went to a mountain together to bury him.

And finally, in an article in the Daily Beast Park claimed when she and her mother were detained in a detention center in Mongolia she was forced to remove all her clothes every day for months. “I was a little girl and felt so ashamed. I kept thinking, ‘Why do these people have the privilege to control me like this? I’m a human too, but I wasn’t treated like one’,” she’s quoted as saying about her experience when she was fifteen years old.

She had not mentioned this in her interview with us and according to sources who know her well, she spent one and a half months in detention in Mongolia and complained to them about having to work in the fields and clean the center, but made no mention of having been subjected to daily strippings. Professor Shi-eun Yu, who worked as a counselor at the South Korean processing center for North Korean refugees, Hanawon, for two years in the early 2000s, and Professor Kim Hyun-ah who worked there for five years in the mid 2000s both told us they had never heard of anyone being stripped naked in a detention center in Mongolia. According to Yu, “In the past, the South Korean government has sent counselors over to Mongolia to help North Korean defectors in detention… so how can defectors be stripped naked everyday? It would cause them more psychological distress. It’s not possible,” she said. Kim said that compared to other countries like Thailand and Russia, Mongolia is very supportive towards North Korean defectors and that it’s highly unlikely that defectors would have been subjected to months of stripping.

So what to make of all this? Are the inconsistencies in Park’s story merely memory lapses or lost in translation moments or is there something else at play?

Yeonmi Park is backed by the American Libertarian non-profit organization, Atlas Foundation. She’s one of its Young Voices and has recently started her own foundation based in New York – you can donate online through PayPal, but what exactly your money will be used for is not clear. What is clear though, is that “Yeonmi is travelling and speaking in 2014” and “is available for international speeches.”

“I want the world to know my story so they will know and remember the story of North Korea” the foundation’s website reads.

But can the world rely on the memory of a 21 year old who left North Korea when she was thirteen? And what are the consequences if her memory has failed her and the picture she’s presenting of her life in North Korea and her escape to South Korea is not accurate?

The North Korean defectors interviewed for this article didn’t want to be identified because they feared for the safety of their families still living under the dictatorship or being ostracized for criticizing one of their own, but they do want their voices heard. Their overriding concern, the detrimental impact exaggeration and fabrication could have on the North Korean refugee cause and their own future opportunities. They worry that Park’s inconsistencies and flawed accounts will make the world start to doubt their stories. They want truth to reign and believe, as Yeonmi Park said on BBC radio, “Lies cannot last forever.”

Mary Ann Jolley is an Australian broadcast journalist who has worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s international affairs program, Foreign Correspondent, and its investigative program, Four Corners, and more recently for the Special Broadcasting Services’ international affairs program, Dateline. Additional reporting and research assistance from Susan Cheong, one of the producers of SBS Dateline’s “Celebrity Defector.”

UPDATE: A Response from Yeonmi Park

I want to thank Mary Ann Jolley for caring so much about the terrible situation in North Korea that she would point out any inconsistencies in my quotes and how my story has been reported. Much of the time, there was miscommunication because of a language barrier. I have only learned English in the last year or so, and I’m trying hard to improve every day to be a better advocate for my people. I apologize for any misunderstandings. For example, I never said that I saw executions in Hyesan. My friends’ mother was executed in a small city in central North Korea where my mother still has relatives (which is why I don’t want to name it). And there are mountains you can even see on Google Earth – maybe you call them big hills in English – outside of Hyesan that we crossed to escape. There are many more examples like this.

But one very important thing to correct:  I do not have a foundation.  The website was a dummy site built by a friend, and it was not supposed to be live. There was no way it could accept money, and I haven’t taken any.  I am so sorry for the confusion. The site has been taken down.

Also, I apologize that there have been times when my childhood memories were not perfect, like how long my father was sentenced to prison. Now I am checking with my mom and others to correct everything. I am also writing a book about my life in North Korea, my escape through China and and my work to promote human rights.  It is where I will be able to tell my full story.

In the meantime, I thank you all for your patience and kindness to me.