With such an insular approach to international relations, we don’t really get all that much in the way of personal accounts of the daily life of people inside the dictatorship of North Korea. Luckily, a few refugees make it out. One of them is Yeonmi Park and in her autobiography, In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey To Freedom, you get a chance to hear her story in all its harrowing detail.
Ordinarily, we wouldn’t be inclined to read, let alone review an autobiography by the average 21 year old, but in Park’s story there’s more than enough to warrant an exception. Shocking, terribly sad and incredibly inspirational, it’s her account of life growing up behind the radio silence and totalitarian regime in North Korea, the trouble her family got into when it turned to smuggling and her escape to China, where she and her mother were kidnapped and trafficked.
It’s a complex story with a lot of light, shade and complete and utter darkness, but there’s an evident determination to tell it in as much detail as possible. This means being incredibly open about her life, family, hardship and struggle for freedom, where nothing appears to be avoided, despite the uncomfortable or painful nature of the events in her life.
She talks about the ingrained adoration she had for the Kim family dictatorship growing up and it’s long term reach into adulthood; her family’s initial political privilege and eventual downfall when her father turned to smuggling; and the dream of escaping to China only to find herself in the clutches of a human trafficking ring. She tries hard to justify her father, but it seems clear that he was fairly reprehensible at times. She struggles with the brain washing influences of the state she escapes, but even following years outside North Korea she clearly hasn’t been able to put it all behind her. The time in China is a stream of devastation that crushes the naive dream of instant salvation as soon as she makes it over the border, but she manages to find the strength carry on.
However, questions about the validity of her story have been well documented by various members of the press in the last year or two, following her rise to international prominence as a human rights activist. Yeonmi Park’s biography even goes so far as to address this in the closing chapters of the book and it’s here that we found a little doubt too, despite pleas of language barriers and childhood memories clouding the truth. The varying statements to the media, along with inconsistencies in interviews have led many to become frustrated with this story of sorrow and salvation and sadly it’s easy to join them.
In the end, it’s hard to know what to believe, which makes the situation, if not necessarily the book itself, difficult to judge, but then maybe it’s not for us to judge at all. Reading the last couple of chapters, you might be reminded of the genius of Yann Martel’s The Life Of Pi, where the young castaway’s story becomes fantastical to deal with the terrible horrors that he’s endured. How much of what is documented in the book is true is impossible for us to know, only Yeonmi knows the real truth, but what’s hard to get away from is that there’s undoubtedly something to the extreme young life she’s had and the difficulties she has been required to overcome just to be free.
In Order To Live is a tough book to sum up with so much of a shadow falling across it, although that doesn’t diminish our recommendation to read it for yourself all that much. You’ll spend the majority of it right there with Yeonmi in spirit, hoping that her dreams will one day come to pass, and hating everyone that wrongs her, no matter how much she’s able to see the better side of them. The problem is that the mention of celebrity TV shows and references to changing stories will make you read more about them and it’s here that you might lose some of your resolve to take it all in. On the other hand, if there’s just 50% truth in the biography of A North Korean Girl’s Journey To Freedom, which is well written, in clear and distinct tones, then there’s more than enough to wish her the best from life now that the ordeal is over.
In Order To Live, by Yeonmi Park, review: 3.7/5