In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

So I discovered Storytel, a Norwegian audiobook service. I had heard of it before, but not really known how amazing it was. You pay a fee every month and you can listen to all the audiobooks you want. (I’m not sponsored or anything, just incredibly excited.) And I have gone a bit crazy and I’m listening to all the things. I’m excited at the chance of listening and frustrated that I can only listen to one at the same time. Yes, that is insane. The first book I listened to was In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park, and I have thoughts. So let’s go.

The book

In Order to Live is a memoir by a young woman who was born in North in-order-to-liveKorea. She grew up in a fairly well-to-do family by North Korean standards. Her father was a smuggler and it means they had an okay life. Then her father was caught and put in prison and the Park family fell into poverty. When Yeonmi was 13 her sister Unmi ran away, defecting, and when Yeonmi and her mother are told this and that they can be helped out of the country as well they defect and go to China. They go to look for Unmi, and hope that their father can join them. Yeonmi talks about her experience being trafficked in China, and working with her trafficker to survive. Eventually they are helped across the border to Mongolia and then taken to South Korea, where Yeonmi keeps searching for, and reaching out to, her sister.


This was so incredible. I really liked it, although liked it sounds like a weird thing to say. It wasn’t like it was enjoyable, it was incredibly sad and painful, but it was an important read. I listened to the audiobook and it wasn’t read by Yeonmi Park, but the narrator was Korean, which I thought was good. She does have a Korean accent, and sometimes I sort of misheard some of the words, because I listen to audiobooks at a higher speed, but it wasn’t really a problem. I always understood from context anyway. And I liked that it was a Korean reader, it made it feel more authentic, I think a non-Korean reader would have felt inauthentic and jarring. 

I don’t think I ever learned anything about North Korea in school, except for the Korean war, so I didn’t know too much about it. Obviously I have learned more about Korea through just culture and everything, but it’s so closed off that I still know very little. I really want to learn more, so I’ve added more books about North Korea to my TBR. I think this book was a good place to start, because she does give a sort of short overview of the history of North Korea, but you don’t get overwhelmed by facts. She also personalizes it just by being someone who lived there and went through it. When she arrives in South Korea and goes to school there she learns that North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, and that her leaders are corrupt and ruthless and cruel. She is completely surprised, because even if she knew she was poor and that there were prisoner camps she’s been told her whole life that North Korea is the best country in the world and that to talk against the leader is akin to blasphemy and impossible. Her whole school life in North Korea she was told that all Americans were dirty pigs and that South Koreans were the scourge of the earth, and when she gets out she has to come to terms with the fact that this just isn’t real. 

It’s heartbreaking in so many ways. A lot of women who get out of North Korea are immediately sold into sexual slavery, a lot are sold to “husbands” and a lot become prostitutes. Yeonmi managed to for the most part avoid that by helping her trafficker get other women through the process. She also was quite young and used that as a way to avoid the most terrible abuse, which is not to say she had an easy time. She was separated from her mother almost instantly, and had to live with a man who abused her and had to see a lot of horror close up at a very young age.

Like I said I think it’s an important book. I feel like North Korea is often treated as a joke, it’s so closed off and hidden, and people are so brainwashed. In reality it’s a human rights crisis of epic proportions. It’s not funny, but it’s often treated that way, or we just don’t talk about it. North Korean defectors who make it to China live in secret, in fear of being sent back, and have to go through excruciating processes to make it to South Korea, where people will actually help them and teach them how to function in modern society. They need help, and while I don’t know how, I want to learn more about how we can help them. It does seem like the famine in the 90s and the corruption of the government and police has somehow led to change. Young North Koreans watch American and South Korean movies smuggled in on illegal DVDs, watched on smuggled illegal DVD-players, and they know they don’t live in the greatest place on earth.


Anyway, I thought this was incredible. I really liked it, sort of. I want to read more about North Korea and learn more about how the country is these days, and how to help, if we can.

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