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Yeonmi Park

Escaping from brutal North Korea

Jerome Favre/EPA/Shutterstock

You can’t imagine my North Korean childhood, says Yeonmi Park on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. “It’s like trying to imagine life on some different planet across the universe.” She was born in 1993, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without the USSR’s food subsidies, North Korea became “a perpetual state of starvation”. She would go out “looking for bugs” to eat, including protein-rich grasshoppers.

When she was nine, the regime forced her to watch the execution of a local man who had eaten a cow from a collective farm, as well as a classmate’s mother – the mother’s sin was owning a South Korean movie. Dead bodies littered the rivers and streets.

Not that Park had the vocabulary to describe her experience. “There’s no word for stress in North Korea, because you can’t be stressed in the socialist paradise”. There’s no word for trauma, no depression, no love, no “I”. You could be sent to a prison camp “for wearing jeans”. It was “Orwellian”.

Aged 13, she escaped to China by pretending to be an adult of marriageable age, then met up with her family and travelled south through Mongolia. When her father died, they had to bury him at 3am to avoid being discovered. Her mother was raped trying to protect her. Park now lives in America as a human-rights activist who has become “the enemy of the woke”. I find being told how to think appalling, she says. “I literally crossed the Gobi Desert to be free.”