Her debut book, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom (2016), recounted, first, her life in the incomparably vile Hermit Kingdom, where there were no words for tyranny, trauma, depression, or love, and where, for nourishment (and long before Klaus Schwab decreed that it was our common culinary destiny) she captured and ate insects on the way to school; second, her 2007 escape to China, where at thirteen she was a sex slave; and, third, her 2009 flight to South Korea, where she began to learn what it meant to be free.
In sum, a remarkable story of triumph against extraordinary odds. But Yeonmi Park’s newly published second book, While Time Remains: A North Korean Defector’s Search for Freedom in America, carries a message that’s even more relevant to Western readers.
For Park, South Korea was a revelation; landing there, after living in two Communist dictatorships, “was like traveling through space and time.” But it was nothing compared to America – to which, after being taken by Christian missionaries to Texas and Georgia, she returned to attend an anti-North Korea “hackathon” in California (although she wasn’t quite sure what hacking was).
“There are a number of places that are even more spectacular in person than they are in legend,” Park writes. “The same is rarely true of countries as a whole.” But for her it was most assuredly true of America, whose people she found to be astonishingly friendly, self-confident, and open – “clearly the descendents, I thought, of those who overturned imperialism and slavery, defeated fascism and communism, invented motion pictures and jazz, eliminated diseases, created the internet, and landed on the moon.”
In 2014, Park became an international sensation when a speech she gave in Dublin went viral. Soon afterwards I saw her speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum. It was there that she first heard about a U.S. residency visa for which she might be eligible. She applied, and was accepted. Shortly afterwards she flew to New York for the first time. If her delight in America had exceeded her wonder at South Korea, her awe at the Big Apple’s grandeur, dynamism, and diversity outstripped everything. In 2o15, she moved there.
Then she enrolled at Columbia University – and the bloom fell from the rose. Even before classes started, her professors and fellow students began trying to destroy her adoration of America: at orientation, an instructor told her that Jane Austen’s novels promoted “female oppression, racism, colonialism, and white supremacy.” In a freshman course on Western music, her classmates agreed with the instructor (whose hands, he lamented, were tied by the core curriculum) that studying dead white men like Beethoven and Mozart was problematic. When Park tried gently to push back, the instructor suggested that she’d been “brainwashed.”
So it went for four years. Too often at Columbia, Park encountered indoctrination, not education; instead of experiencing lively debate, she heard students mindlessly parrot their professors’ denunciations of “capitalism, Western civilization, white supremacy, systematic racism, oppression of minorities, colonialism, etc.” Talk about being brainwashed! For Park, it was all too reminiscent of North Korea – and a betrayal of the America she’d fallen in love with. This is, note well, a woman who, when she quotes the First Amendment, makes you read it with fresh eyes, and makes you see anew just how remarkable it is.
And yet Columbia and other Ivies teach young Americans to despise it.
It was at Columbia that Park first heard about “safe spaces” and “triggering.” She met rich kids with “made-up problems” – callow twits who “created injustice out of thin air” but had no clue as to “what injustice looks like in the world.” She saw boys twice her size break into tears over nonsense. “A lecture about Homer,” she recalls, “would end with a white student crying about colonialism.”
Then there was “misgendering.” One biological male who went by “they/their” admonished Park for calling him he. If she chose not to strike back by “tell[ing] this fragile soul about life in North Korea versus life in America,” it was because she saw “real suffering” in his eyes: he “truly felt threatened, harmed, and oppressed.” And she genuinely sympathized, understanding that he’d been indoctrinated – just as she’d been in North Korea.
But Park wasn’t entirely immune to progressive lies. Reading the New York Times and Washington Post daily, she had no doubt that Trump was indeed a “fascist” and “would-be dictator.” When friends vowed that they’d move to Canada if he won, she believed them; when he did win, she bought the lie that Putin was behind it.
She’d learn the truth soon enough – and much of that learning took place on the lecture circuit. Attending a 2014 women’s conference alongside Hillary Clinton and Meryl Streep, Park described women’s suffering in North Korea, but discovered that this glitzy gathering was all about “the suffering of women in America” – for example, “being only the vice president of a Fortune 500 company rather than the CEO.”
Then Jeff Bezos flew her on a Gulfstream to a Santa Barbara event called Campfire, where another star-studded crowd (Tom Hanks, Reese Witherspoon) cheered Harvey Weinstein’s rags-to-riches story. They also applauded Park’s talk about North Korea – until she started in on the evils of China. These elites’ wealth, she came to realize, depended largely on the CCP. They were, Park grasped, “more immoral than I’d thought they were,” and events like Campfire, swathed in noble rhetoric, were fundamentally unserious – opportunities for the beau monde to schmooze. (Later, by the way, when Weinstein was disgraced, Park asked someone she’d met at Campfire if she’d known about Weinstein’s conduct. “[O]f course she knew – everyone did.”)
On, then, to the 2017 Met Gala, where Park reflected that Pyongyang’s stereotypes of Western shallowness and materialism “might actually contain a hint of truth.” Still, she kept showing up at these glitterati conclaves, hoping to help her homeland. But the big shots, obsessed with Trump and climate change, didn’t give a damn about North Koreans.
And what of China, whose power over U.S. elites Park depicts so chillingly? It was, alas, her bluntness on this topic that turned her from an elite darling into a persona non grata. A Samsung subsidiary canceled a talk by her; so did the FBI’s Dallas field office. Park’s YouTube channel on North Korea got millions of hits – but when she covered China’s enslavement of North Koreans, her videos were demonetized. (Meanwhile, YouTube continues to host DPRK videos in which Park’s North Korean relatives and neighbors denounce her.)
Then Critical Race Theory and the “anti-racism” movement came onto her radar, reminding her of Juche – the Kims’ official ideology, “with its arcane vocabulary and impenetrable set of ideas that pretend to serve political change but really just sort ordinary people into different identity categories that keep them as separate as possible from the elite.” Having been “filled with joy” during her first American trips “to find that Dr. King’s dream was a reality” in the land of the free, Park understood at once just how anti-MLK CRT was.
Nor was she taken in by the woke crowd’s new race rules, whose utter absurdity was never clearer than when applied to her: she’d literally been a slave, but because she was Asian, the folks who adjudicated these things considered her white-adjacent and therefore an oppressor of 21st-century black Americans – whom they saw as still bearing slavery’s scars. (Regrettably, Park’s publisher, in line with CRT but in opposition to Park’s manifest sensibilities, has capitalized the word black throughout her book.)
In 2016, Park married. Two years later, she gave birth to a son. Last year, she became a U.S. citizen. God bless her. People like her – not that there are many of them – are America’s best hope. Her respect for its founding ideals, and her insights into the appalling ways in which many Americans today betray those ideals, are invaluable. Certainly few people’s life stories underscore as effectively as hers does the sheer inanity of the concept of group victimhood. In a recent interview with the Canadian author and podcaster Gad Saad, Park admitted that in her first book, on the advice of her publishers, she’d bitten her tongue about wokeness. No more.
Park shared with Saad, incidentally, one more story that revealed China’s influence in the U.S. today. Some Hollywood studio, she told Saad, purchased the film rights to her first book and eventually sent her a draft screenplay. To her shock, it portrayed her deliverance into freedom as taking place not in South Korea or America but – guess where? – in China.
Yes, this Tinseltown script transformed China – where the government harvests the organs of North Korean refugees – into Park’s “promised land.” This is precisely the kind of toxic thinking that goes on nowadays in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles – and that decent Americans need to be aware of and to stand up to. In While Time Remains, Yeonmi Park does a wise and valiant job of showing us how.