Can We Believe Yeonmi Park’s Account of North Korea?

Just what’s going on in North Korea? According to Reporters without Borders, North Korea is at the very bottom of their index of freedom of the press. North Korean television and radio seem to be controlled by the government. The nation is purposely secretive and responds with military bravado at the slightest provocation. There doesn’t seem to be any viable means of finding out anything about North Korea beyond the government’s own assertions and chance statements made by those North Koreans who have managed to cross the borders into South Korea or China.

It’s therefore all the more valuable for those concerned about human rights to pay attention to activists like Yeonmi Park. In 2007, Yeonmi and her mother crossed the Yalu River, which forms the border between North Korea and China. The two women – Yeonmi was only thirteen when her journey began – managed to negotiate human traffickers, despair, starvation, and the Gobi Desert to arrive finally in Mongolia, where Christian missionaries got them transport to South Korea and a new life. Yeonmi Park wrote an account of her ordeal in her Amazon released memoirs, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, published in 2015 by Penguin Press.
In a recent article for Reason.com (https://reason.com/blog/2015/11/15/yeonmi-parks-north-korean-defector-story), Todd Krainin candidly reviewed Yeonmi’s book, but maintained some skepticism in assessing the statements she made in her text. The account of Yeonmi’s experience is indeed harrowing, and reading of the horrors she endured is highly moving. But in response to her statements, the North Korean News media have insisted that Yeonmi and her mother are agents working for the United States and are not to be believed; in other words, they made the whole thing up to vilify North Korea. While it may be a little difficult to accept the florid rhetoric of Pyongyang and easy to wonder if they are protesting too much, readers outside of North Korea have claimed to find inaccuracies in Park’s account, throwing doubt upon her statements.
The question remains, just what’s going on in North Korea? If those who have escaped the country are not to be believed, then the only source of information we have is Pyongyang. But if we can put trust in the defectors’ words, then the situation in that secretive country is indeed one to excite great pity and concern.

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