‘In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom’ is Yeonmi Park’s account of how she escaped from North Korea when she was thirteen years old. Born in 1993, Park left Hyesan with her mother in an attempt to track down her older sister Eunmi who had already defected. However, they were sold to traffickers in China where they both experienced horrific abuse. Two years later, they fled across the Gobi desert to Mongolia before arriving in South Korea where Park has since become a leading human rights activist.
There have been comments in the media recently about the unreliability of accounts given by some North Korean defectors including Park herself perhaps due to pressure or incentives to present the most shocking stories about one of the most secretive countries in the world to captive Western audiences. Park has attributed most of the factual inconsistencies in some of her previous interviews to the language barrier having only recently learned English herself. She said that her full story will be told in this book based on her own memories as well as those of her family.
Near the beginning of the book, Park says somewhat tellingly, “We North Koreans can be experts at lying, even to ourselves”. Perhaps it is the unreliability of memory or an ingrained habit of fabricating the truth – deliberately or unconsciously – which tells us more about the nature of the North Korean regime itself rather than the actual events themselves that she recounts. Moreover, I doubt there are many autobiographical accounts which can be 100% verifiable or compatible with other versions of the same experiences. Anyone can be an unreliable witness for all sorts of reasons.
Consequently, I chose to read ‘In Order to Live’ with less scepticism than I initially thought I would. However, I did find myself paying more attention to the way it was told rather than what was being told. The prose is quite plain and straightforward, reflecting the rawness of the appalling experiences she describes. For me, the most interesting parts of the book were the final chapters where Park describes how she and her mother adapted to their new life in South Korea having experienced so much trauma in North Korea and China. One of the biggest adjustments for Park was learning how to think critically and form her own opinions which was a completely new concept for her.
Whatever your views are about its level of reliability, I would recommend this book for anyone who is interested in North Korea. However, for those who are already very knowledgeable about the country, I don’t think ‘In Order to Live’ will add a great deal compared to other more established books such as Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick which I would still recommend as the best narrative non-fiction account of life in North Korea. I also feel that Park is more engaging to listen to and watch in interviews on screen compared to reading her prose which she co-wrote with Maryanne Vollers.
Overall, I think ‘In Order to Live’ is a very powerful and truly harrowing account which reveals a lot about life in North Korea but perhaps not in the way that Park had intended.
Many thanks to Penguin Books UK for the review copy of ‘In Order to Live’.