(Monsieur Collage for The Free Press)

From Slavery in North Korea to Jeff Bezos’s Gulfstream

I came to the U.S. prizing its freedoms. But I found that this nation’s most powerful people value something else entirely.

Nothing I have ever read about the slave state of North Korea has affected me more than Yeonmi Park’s bestselling book, “In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom.” Her account makes it clear that that phrase—slave state—is not hyperbole.

Park grew up believing that Kim Jong-il was so powerful that he could read her mind. (“Even when you think you’re alone,” her mother warned her, “the birds and mice can hear you whisper.”) She survived a famine that killed nearly three million people. (She ate dragonflies to survive). At nine years old, Park witnessed the public execution of her friend’s mother. (The woman was put to death for the crime of watching a Hollywood movie.)

Almost no one escapes the Hermit Kingdom. Yeonmi Park did.

At 13, she fled to China with her mother. The two endured unspeakable things—rape by human traffickers; sexual servitude. Ultimately, they broke free again, crossing the freezing Gobi Desert at night to Mongolia, then onto South Korea and, finally, to America.

Last year, as she wrote in The Free Press, Park became a U.S. citizen.

Now, she has published a new book, “While Time Remains: A North Korean Defector’s Search for Freedom in America.” In the excerpt we are publishing below, Park writes about her experience among America’s most celebrated, wealthy elites—and the moral corruption she found at their conferences and on their Gulfstreams.

In October of 2014, I was at the Oslo Freedom Forum when I received an invitation from some guy named Jeff Bezos from a company called Amazon. I had never heard of either, so I replied that I was going to be busy (even though I wasn’t!) 

I was also invited to speak at several conferences, including Women in the World hosted by Tina Brown, the founding editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. At Women in the World, I was scheduled to speak right before Hillary Rodham Clinton—a name I was familiar with from news coverage in South Korea when she was secretary of state. Other speakers there included Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, the actress Meryl Streep, and other political figures like Samantha Power, then America’s ambassador to the United Nations. 

This conference was a watershed moment for me and my understanding of the world. Until that point, I thought that the international community had neglected to do anything for the North Korean people because they didn’t know what was going on there. After all, only about two hundred North Korean defectors have made it to America legally in the past seventy-plus years, and no one inside North Korea can communicate with the outside world. 

After accepting the invitation to speak at the conference, I resolved to share with the esteemed audience what was actually going on in North Korea, so that Americans and Europeans with real money, power, and influence would feel inspired and empowered to do something. At the very least, I was sure that they would help spread the word about the modern-day holocaust taking place in North Korea, about the fact that it is being aided and abetted by the Chinese Communist Party, and that tens and even hundreds of thousands of mostly female North Korean defectors are being sold, raped, and otherwise harmed in China. 

In a word, that isn’t what happened. It turned out that the purpose of a conference like Women in the World was not to mobilize financial capital and political power among people who are fortunate enough to possess it in order to help people suffering in places like China and North Korea; it was—if there was any point at all—to passionately discuss the suffering of women in America. 

The word oppression here was defined to mean things like making ninety cents on the dollar compared with men, or being only the vice president of a Fortune 500 company rather than the CEO, or how male-dominated office culture doesn’t make it safe for women to cry. As much as I tried to have compassion, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. 

Hillary Clinton watched my speech from the greenroom backstage, since she was the next speaker after me. It was October of 2015 and she was running for president at the time. When I came down from the stage in tears after my speech, Clinton came up to me, looked me in the eye, and told me that she would never forget what I said that day. She promised that she would do everything in her power to help the women of North Korea. 

Perhaps she might have if she’d been elected president; she elected instead to spend the next several years—as far as I could tell—complaining about not being president.

As it was for so many other Americans, the election of 2016 was another milestone in my understanding of the world. From the time I arrived in New York, I’d tried to consume as much American news coverage as possible, both because it helped improve my English abilities and because I thought it would keep me informed about my new country and the wider world. 

Being a recent Manhattanite, I decided to read The New York Times and the Washington Post every day in Columbia’s Butler Library and listen to National Public Radio in my dorm. As recently as the previous year, I had no opinion of any of the Republican or Democratic candidates for president, nor did I think one way or the other about the parties in general. Americans seemed to think that the GOP and Democrats were like Mars and Venus, but to me they seemed, if not necessarily identical, then at least more similar to each other than either of them were to anything I knew from Korea or China. 

But by Election Day of 2016, I was, in my own naive way, radicalized. I was convinced that Donald Trump was a fascist, a would-be dictator, and a rapist. I told my fiancé at the time that if he had any reasons for liking Trump, I didn’t want to hear them, and that if he even considered voting for Trump, I wouldn’t marry him. Some of my girlfriends in Brooklyn and Manhattan would go to weeknight meetings to organize efforts for how to resist Trump and how we could bring him down. When they told me about their plans to move to Canada if Clinton lost, I believed them. Looking back on it, I didn’t know a single American at the time who supported Trump, or even anybody who just felt neutral about the election. My peers were all very smart people, had much higher levels of educational attainment than I did, and had spent far more of their lives in the United States than I had. 

Everything I absorbed from them was mutually reinforced by everything I read in the newspapers and everything I heard on the radio. When I saw Trump’s face or heard his voice and felt viscerally angry, there was simply no reason to think twice about where on earth these feelings were coming from. I still remember the moment when my fiancé called and told me that Trump had won. I was in my bed and felt afraid. I started to sob. I called my friends to see how they were doing, and they checked in on me. I watched cable news all day, read through the major national newspapers, and listened to radio and podcasts. 

It was clear that Trump had colluded with the Russians to steal the election from Clinton, and also that he would soon be impeached and removed from office, if not assassinated. If not, then the dark night of fascism would soon fall on America, the place I’d immigrated to in search of freedom. It was just my luck that I’d finally arrived here only in time to watch it disintegrate into the kind of dictatorship from which I’d escaped. This was now the world I inhabited: one in which a single election victory by one of America’s two political parties spelled the end of the Republic, the death of peace and freedom, the end of the line. This was the world of The New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and Columbia—the world of the elite. 

It took a long time for me to start thinking for myself, rather than within the boundaries set for me. For the first fourteen years of my life, which is when we learn how to think, there was no thinking for me to do. What kind of haircut should I get? That was a decision made only by the regime. What kind of music should I listen to? The regime decided for us. What kinds of books and movies? The regime, again. There was no opportunity to develop critical human faculties like judgment, imagination, or taste, which of course is the objective of every dictatorial regime.

North Korea is so successful in this respect that once I was finally free in South Korea, I was crippled by the expectation and even the thought that I had to make decisions and think for myself. Which jeans should I wear? I wished someone else would pick for me. Where should I eat dinner? Can’t someone else decide? In the first several months I lived in Seoul, I felt overwhelmed even by small, meaningless decisions like these—so much so that at one point, I remember thinking that if I could be guaranteed a supply of frozen potatoes and an exemption from execution for having defected, I’d like to go back to North Korea. 

It was not the education I received at Columbia, or following the American press, that helped me finally break out of this habit. It was reading old books. Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy was one; George Orwell’s collected writings were another. I started to believe, as I still do now, that the only way to think for yourself is to ignore the mainstream media, and largely forget the daily news cycle, and connect instead with the great minds of the past, who know all of our problems better than we do ourselves. 

There is a reason why the great books of Western civilization are all banned in dictatorships. Before my father’s arrest, when I was seven or eight years old, I remember that one night in our home, he was sitting with a small glass bottle with cooking oil and a cotton thread inside, which he ignited with a lighter to turn it into a reading lamp. My father was holding a bundle of bound pages with no front or back cover. When I asked him what it was, he said it was part of a book about North Korean soldiers that were captured by the South during the Korean War. I remember him telling me then that the benefit of reading books, if you could find them, was that you could learn common sense, which you don’t get taught in classrooms, because they are filled with propaganda. 

Yeonmi around eight years old in Pyongyang. (Courtesy of the author)

In March of 2016, I’d received another speaking invitation, this time to something called “Campfire.” Once a year or so, Jeff Bezos (who by this time I knew was the founder and CEO of Amazon, and that this was a large company indeed!) brings together a small group of famous and successful writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers for an exclusive, off-the-record weekend of relaxation, socializing, and storytelling by fascinating people who have lived extraordinary lives. Previous guests included (in no particular order) Neil Armstrong, Bette Midler, Walter Mosley, Neil Gaiman, Robert Sapolsky, Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, and Billie Jean King. The event that year would be held that year at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara, California. 

Guests were asked to prepare 25-minute speeches to be delivered to an audience of 150 other notable guests. I was taking classes while continuing my human rights advocacy work at the time, and I took the week off to attend Campfire. Bezos sent a Gulfstream private jet to New York to pick up several attendees, including me. I boarded the plane with famous actors and writers whose names I don’t recall, but I do remember one guest, who introduced himself as Harvey Weinstein. I had no clue who he was, but my fiancé told me that he was a very famous film producer. It was, naturally enough, my first time on a private jet, and I’d never seen such a beautiful plane in my life. At the private airport we departed from, there was no security or baggage check. It was a sunny but chilly day, and I came straight from a morning class at Columbia. 

By this time I’d learned more about Bezos, who was evidently not just the CEO of Amazon but one of the wealthiest and most powerful people on the face of the earth. I boarded his plane with the same hope I harbored taking the stage at the Women in the World conference: I was confident that with his help, I was going to find a way to improve the lot of North Koreans—if not the ones trapped in the country itself then at least some of the 300,000 defectors in China, where I’d heard Bezos did a lot of his business. In my view, it wouldn’t take much; the mere acknowledgment of what was happening to my people in China by someone like Bezos might have a ripple effect, convincing other American investors to put pressure on Beijing to reduce its support for Pyongyang. 

This was, of course, before I’d learned that the power dynamic goes the other way around: that American investors and businesspeople are far more dependent on the Chinese market than the Chinese government is on them. Even Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest man, made his billions by building a company that—whatever its other merits and considerable achievements—essentially serves as a storefront for Chinese sellers and products. Bezos, it turned out, also owned the Washington Post. Go figure. 

It was with high hopes that I embarked on the Gulfstream.

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