Yeonmi Park stands with a mic in the lily gallery, delivering a speech to a full crowd
Yeonmi Park speaking in the Lilly Gallery. Photo by Bailey Maierson ‘25

Erin Martin ’23 (She/Her), News Writer

Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector who fled the country, was chosen to speak at Davidson and share her personal narrative about living in North Korea. She escaped when she was 13 years old in 2007 and is now an activist, advocating for those still under Kim Jong-Un’s dictatorship. Davidson College students heard her speak about her experience on Monday, April 18, 2022 in the Lilly Gallery. 

Park lived in North Korea until she was a teenager. She escaped to China and eventually South Korea, now sharing her long journey to a free life. After escaping North Korea, she trekked into China where Park was sold as a sex slave to various Chinese men. In 2009, she began her migration to South Korea. “When I was 15, I crossed the Gobi desert from China into Mongolia with only a compass. It was freezing, below -40 degrees,” Park described. After interrogation at different borders, she finally made it to South Korea, at last free. 

Park spoke to the audience about her life in North Korea before she escaped. From the age of five, most children are expected to begin providing labor for the regime. “We would eat grasshoppers; I was eating them to survive as a child,” she said, “We were told not eating lunch is healthy.” Without electricity or the internet, there are few ways for people to document these human rights violations. 

Kelsey Chase ‘24 described her initial reaction to hearing about Park’s life in North Korea. “I was initially just shocked,” she stated. “I was really impacted by the level of resilience she had, it was so important for us to hear something that expanded our world view, most of us will never experience anything close to what she did.” 

Caree Henry ‘24 shared those sentiments. “I knew the situation in North Korea was bad, but it made me understand it a lot more after hearing it from her. It made me look at things from a different perspective. I can’t even wrap my head around the whole situation,” he stated. 

Chase concurred. “It was so surprising to hear that they didn’t have a word for friend, and the only thing you’re allowed to love is the government itself.” 

This surprise came from something in particular that Park shared with the audience: “In North Korea, love between humans is banned, the regime wanted us to love the dictators more than anything.” 

When asked about her transition from life in North Korea to a free life, Park explained her new interactions with privilege. “I never understood that having too much could be a problem. All of the dieting and losing weight, I just didn’t understand. My friends pay money to burn calories when under the same sky, there are people dying of starvation,” she said. “It was hard to comprehend such a different reality.” 

Virginia Heiser ‘24 was responsible for planning the event. She wanted someone with a unique story who was willing to come to the school in person to share their story and connect with the students. 

Heiser noted that there was a great event turnout of about 120 people in attendance, all eager to hear Park speak. “A lot of people were excited about hearing her story. So many people lined up to ask her personal questions and connect with her after the talk.” 

Park has now been living in the United States for seven years. The pandemic has forced her to transform her activism and advocate for North Koreans through social media. “I want people to know what’s happening,” she stated. “I eventually learned that life could be living for your own nature.” 

“The fight isn’t over yet,” Park added. There are currently 300,000 girls right now in China living in slavery, and millions more under the control of the North Korean regime. She shared that most people in North Korea are not aware of alternative ways of life. “If you don’t know you’re a slave, how do you fight to be free?” she asked the audience. 

Chase stated that “humans have a tendency to be desensitized to this if, it’s not happening right in front of us, but Ms. Park showed us the level of atrocities that North Koreans are facing right now.” Members of the audience were shocked to hear the personal narrative of Park, some of which were being exposed to this information for the first time. 

“I wasn’t a free person until I was 15,” Park said. “It is our duty to fight for the people who are voiceless, so one day when we don’t have freedom, they will do the same for us.”