I’ve recently read In Order To Live and wanted to post a short review here because it’s a great book. In Order To Live is a memoir written by Yeonmi Park, a 24-year-old North Korean who fled North Korea with her mother when she was 13. It is the account of her life in Hyesan, a city located in the northern part of North Korea, very close to the Chinese border, of her escape through China and of her new life as a refugee in South Korea.
I don’t want to say too much about the life of Yeonmi Park and her family in North Korea under Kim Jong Il‘s reign because it is of course very eventful. This book, for this part at least, almost reads like a thrilling novel, which makes it a great read but is also extremely sad. Many unbelievable, dangerous and terrible events happened to the Park family in the 1990’s and 2000’s and these events led to their escape to China in 2007.
This memoir is a very fascinating book for several reasons. First, it provides us with an incredible account of life in a locked country we don’t know anything about. It is not a point of view from a foreign journalist but a point of view from the inside, which is extremely rare. It allows us to get a great deal of accurate and unexpected information. At the same time, it is of course a very subjective point of view, from someone whose family belonged to North Korea’s middle-class (or the “basic” class) and had a poor but not terribly poor songbun (the songbun is basically the cast a family belongs to). – That was at least the case in Yeonmi’s first years of childhood. My point is that Yeonmi Park’s experience is not similar to the experience of a North Korean who belongs to the “core class” (the highest class) or of a North Korean who belongs to the “hostile class” (the class of people who are perceived as enemies of the state). But it makes sense, this book is a memoir and doesn’t pretend to be an extensive essay on North Korea. It doesn’t take anything away from the richness of Yeonmi’s point of view and information she provides us with.
On the contrary, I would say that subjectivity is actually the great strength of this book. We become one with Yeonmi: we despair when she despairs, we hope when she hopes, we are scared when she is scared. The narrative is incredibly powerful in this regard. The only thing that may have annoyed me a little bit is the naivety of some passages (the naivety of the characters and also of the writing), but I am aware that this naivety is the naivety of a North Korean young woman who had never been taught anything about the world until recently.
Finally, this book highlights a terrible phenomenon, which may not be very well-known but I think it’s very important to know about it : the fact that many female North Korean defectors who escape through China become victims of human trafficking, very present in North-East China (in the area of Jinzhou, for instance), especially before the Beijing Olympic Games – most of them are held prisoners by brokers before being sold to peasants/disabled men of the area to be their wives. It is very likely that this situation has evolved since then, as Yeonmi Park suggests. Already, when she was herself victim of human trafficking, she noticed a real change from July 2008 onward: with the Olympic Games, the police started a harsh hunt against North Korean defectors in the area and the massive deportation of North Korean women dramatically slowed down this human trafficking. I am not sure what the situation currently is, it is extremely hard to find information on that subject, but the fact that this book highlights this issue is of the utmost importance.
I did not summarize the events of this book too much, on purpose. I don’t want to reveal Yeonmi Park’s difficult journey to freedom. I think you should just go and read this important and inspiring book.
Are there any Korean books/books about North Korea or South Korea that you would recommend, guys?
In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park. Published by Penguin Books, 2016 (for this paperback edition)