In Order to Live is an astonishing story of endurance, courage, and love. Yeonmi Park was thirteen years old when she and her mother escaped from North Korea. In Order to Live tells their incredible story of survival, suffering, and eventual freedom.
I’ve always had a fascination with the Cold War and Communism in general, and everything in this book correlates with many other books I’ve read, except for the fact that the 25 million people of the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ are effectively cut off completely from the rest of the world and are continually fed the lie that they live in a perfect socialist paradise.
When you’re in a state of semi-starvation and all your energy is absorbed in finding enough food for your family, how do you stand up against oppression and injustice?
Yeonmi’s parents grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s when the state was propped up by the Soviet Union and China and everyone’s basic needs were taken care of. After the Cold War ended the North Korean economy collapsed when they were abandoned by the Communist countries who had helped them rebuild after the Korean War.
In the mid 1990’s, Kim Sung II died. Yeonmi was just an infant at the time and the country was in the grip of famine. This was the North Korea she knew. Unlike her parents, she had never experienced life in any other way. Hunger was an ever present fact of life.
In what has been termed, ‘emotional dictatorship,’ (a term used by a former state-appointed Poet Laureate Jang Jin-sung) North Korean leaders aren’t satisfied just to control where you go, what you learn, what you say, and where you work; they control your emotions and destroy your individuality. Indoctrination starts in early childhood and in schools everything is a propaganda tool. School children are a part of the unpaid labour force and are expected to do manual work in the collective farms.
In North Korea a person’s opportunities are determined by their ‘songbun’ or caste. When Kim Il Sung came to power after WWII, background checks were done on every citizen to determine which group or caste they belonged to. The highest class (the ‘core’) were the honoured revolutionaries who had fought or died for the North and had shown great loyalty to the Kim family. Next came the basic or wavering class – former merchants, intellectuals, those who had lived in the South or had family there. Last of all was the the ‘hostile ‘ class which was made up of capitalists, former landowners and their descendants; former South Korean soldiers, Christians or others with religious beliefs, and other so called enemies of the state.
Yeonmi’s father lost his songbun status, and with it all he had achieved, because his eldest brother was accused of a crime and put in prison.
Yeonmi, her older sister, Enunmi, and their parents lived in Hyesan, where the Yalu River divides North Korea and China. In 2007, her parents decided there was no future in North Korea for their daughters. Hunger was their biggest fear and obsession. They had relatives in China. Perhaps they would help them. Rumours were floating around that girls had escaped to China and had found work.
That year Yeonmi and her mother found a broker who would help them get to China. Unknown to them at the time, the broker was involved in human trafficking.
The Chinese government has a policy that any North Korean refugees found in China would be sent straight back and this means imprisonment or even death. China’s policy strengthens the traffickers power as women and girls are forced into prostitution or unsuitable marriages, rather than face the penalties of returning to North Korea, and the lucrative trafficking continues.
Yeonmi lost her innocence and for a time, her humanity.
In Order to Live is not only a moving memoir, it is a warning to those of us in the West about the dangers of authoritarianism and restrictions on freedom of speech.
Yeonmi’s mother narrowly escaped death as a result of a conversation she had with a friend about rumours over the death of Kim Il Sung. Even though she had vigorously denounced the rumours in the course of the converstion, the very fact that she had even had the conversation was enough to condemn her.
As soon as Yeonmi was old enough to understand, her mother warned her,
“Remember, Yeonmi-ya,” she said gently, “even when you think you are alone, the birds and mice can hear you whisper.”
I heard about In Order to Live after watching an interview of the author here. I watched this with my 16 year old but the book goes into more detail about their experiences in China so it needs to be previewed. I decided not to use it with my daughter at this stage. I’ve only touched on a few things here but I highly recommend the interview even if you don‘t get to read the book.