Opinion18 Feb 2019

Yeonmi Park reminds Australia our freedom isn’t universal

North Korean defector Yeonmi Park recounts her harrowing journey to freedom at an event hosted by Walk Free and Perth USAsia Centre.

Yeonmi Park Photo Credit: Benjamin Horgan via Minderoo Foundation.

Imagine if living in Australia meant you were monitored at every moment, with no allowance for creative thought or self-determination. Would you be brave enough to risk your own life if it meant a chance at freedom?

This was the reality of Yeonmi Park when she fled the brutal North Korean regime at the age of 13. Many years later, and in a very different place, Park spoke of her experience to a captivated Perth audience. The event, held at Forrest Hall on Friday January 25th, was hosted by Walk Free Foundation and the Perth USAsia Centre.

A stark contrast to the beautiful riverside setting, Park spoke of a childhood ruled by obedience, poverty and hunger, her terrifying escape through China and the Gobi Desert and her life as a defector.

Park painted a painful picture of the reality of life in North Korea, a country where an estimated one in 10 people are living in modern slavery and the vast majority of civilians are forced to work by the state.

As Walk Free’s North Korea Report found, forced labour imposed by the state can take various forms, from requiring school children to perform communal services for months at a time, to the use of “labour training camps” as a form of punishment and social control.

Every North Korean is taught to worship “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, (succeeded by Kim Yong-un in 2011) and as a child, Park grew up believing she was born in “socialist paradise”.

However, life in North Korea is impossibly difficult. People struggle to survive with no food, medical supplies or access to sufficient rations, according to Park, and the pervasiveness of the omniscient State Security Department means that North Koreans cannot acknowledge their reality as they fear being reported on.


Photo Credit: Benjamin Horgan via Minderoo Foundation.

Park does not spare any detail of the atrocities and injustices she endured on her journey to freedom. After watching her friend’s mother publicly executed and then herself surviving surgery without anaesthetic or painkillers, Park knew she must try and escape.  

At just 13, Yeon-mi fled to China where she was apprehended by traffickers who sold her for less than $300. Two years later she crossed the Gobi desert on foot and made her way into South Korea.

Although Park is now living in freedom in the United states she is still getting used to things Australians take for granted. She reminds her audience how lucky they are to live without fear of forced labour or execution for simply expressing an opinion or reading an article like this one.

Through Park’s account of North Korea, we understand that she does not believe her story is particularly special and that there are many others who endured the same fate or worse. Her journey, she says, could have been any North Korean, she was just lucky enough to make it out.

Australians must not be disengaged while other humans are starved and killed by their own government. As Park reminds us, “If we can care about animal rights and the environment, we should be able to care about human rights”.

This needs to be a priority for Australia.