Below are the video and transcript of Yeonmi Park’s powerfully urgent speech at the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s 2018 Restoration Weekend. The event was held Oct. 26-29th at the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans.
In the Western world, especially in America, we’ve been blessed with freedom and prosperity that are unprecedented in world history. But it’s precisely because we’re so free and prosperous that it’s easy for us to forget or even be clueless about the alternative. It often takes a person who has experienced a total absence of those freedoms to recognize and appreciate just how blessed we are in the West and also to warn us about how fragile our freedoms and prosperity really are.
Yeonmi Park is just such a person. As a human rights activist who defected from the totalitarian nightmare that is North Korea and then survived human trafficking in China before arriving in the United States and becoming a staunch defender of Western values, she now lives in New York City and is a graduate of Columbia University. You must read her harrowing autobiography called In Order to Live: a North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom. And also her follow up book, While Time Remains: A North Korean Defectors Search for Freedom in America, which we have out outside of course. In that book, she shares her observations and warnings that the United States is being threatened by the kind of dangerous hypocrisies, mob tactics and groupthink that she experienced in North Korea. Here, those totalitarian tactics are called wokeness and social justice.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am honored to introduce to you a woman of extraordinary resilience, dignity and courage, a woman whose small voice needs to be heard far and wide: Yeonmi Park.
Good afternoon, everyone. Hello. I’m sorry to. I’m sure you’re enjoying your lunch to share my story during meal time, but I’m very, very honored to be standing here today. When I was growing up in North Korea, every single day, I had to hear: Hey, you guys, the American bastards, with passion, even in my school textbook. My teacher said: there are four American bastards, you kill two of them, then how many American bastards are left to kill? And that was sort of message I saw as a child inside North Korea.
The very first thing my mother taught me as a youngster in North Korea was: don’t even whisper, because the birds and mice could hear me. She said the most dangerous thing that I had in my body was my tongue. If I said one wrong word, it wasn’t just going to kill me. It was going to kill up to 3 to 8 generations of my family. And here I am talking to you now, not whispering. And in the same lifetime, I’m going through all this journey. Before I talk about how America is facing the same threat, I really want to talk about how I became a free person.
I was born inside North Korea in 1993, at the end of it, and that is the time when the Soviet Union collapsed. And you guys have like this term right now, socialism works when you’re on somebody else’s money. That was a perfect case of North Korea. By the time and I was born in North Korea, they ran out of their allies money. The Soviet Union was collapsed. China was subsidizing North Korean’s economy, And that’s how millions of people were dying from starvation. I’m actually in very tall heels, but because of the severe malnutrition that North Korean people experience, we are, on average five inches shorter than South Koreans.North Korean men who are 3’ 10”, have to go to military to serve for 13 to 17 years mandatory service. For women, it’s 7 years. So during this time, literally more than 3 million people died in the 90’s when I was a toddler. And it’s interesting because the cadres in the countryside went to North Korean regime Kim Jong Un at the time and said: “our leader, there are people dying from starvation in massive millions, what should we do?” And literally, Kim Jong Un said: don’t do anything because it’s easy to do socialism when there are less of them. And now I hear the same sound in the West how humans are toxic, how we are the poison to the Mother Earth. So, it’s better to be less of us, then more of us. This ideology drives North Korea. They don’t respect human life. Therefore, they’ve even removed concepts like love, freedom or human rights from North Korean people. When I was growing up, the only love I was allowed to learn was love for the Korean leader. I did not know it was a concept that we could love our parents or even to our own mothers.
Kim Jong Un even banned Mother’s Day because he was so paranoid that if we love our own mothers, we are not going to love him as much. So, any love between human beings is denied. But during this darkest moment of my life inside North Korea, I saw light one day. The light that I saw was actually watching a full-length DVD from China.
There were smugglers from China smuggling these DVDs to North Korea. And the movie that I watched was Titanic. Have you guys seen the movie Titanic here? Yayyyy. When I was watching Titanic inside North Korea as a youngster, I was massively confused because somehow in the movie there was nothing about revolution in it. And then some guy dying for a woman? It’s such a shameful story I just couldn’t believe. Why would anyone make a movie out of such a horrifying, shameful story? And then later, it made me feel like maybe that’s humanity. And that gave me a slice in a case of freedom at the moment. But still, I had no clue the world like this existed.
So North Korea interestingly enough, found the idea of complete equality of outcomes. So, it’s very similar to what’s happening in America right now. There are so many young people who believe that things should be free, like education should be free. They say healthcare is human rights, so it should be free. Housing should be free. Everything should be free. How many young people in America are demanding these things to be free from the government?
Kim Il-Sung came to my grandparents in the forties, and said that it’s so unfair that there are capitalists and landowners. They create inequality. I’m going to make everything free for you guys. I’m going to bring a socialist paradise for you guys.
If you just give up your private property, freedom of speech and freedom of movement. If you just give us these few things, I’m going to make everybody equal and there will be nobody not getting a medical treatment. Everybody will get a job, medical treatment, and free education. And he promised a dream for the North Korean people– I’m going to guarantee that you’re going to eat three times a day white rice and meat stew. With that little promise, my grandmother and my grandfather gave up everything they owned. They gave up all their rights. They gave up all their property, hoping that they can live in a socialist paradise. But you know what happened in reality. With the promise of a socialist paradise, they created the most unequal society in human history.
North Korea created 51 different castes inside North Korea. Can you imagine that? North Koreans are not like Americans. We are a homogeneous country. We are 5000 years as a Koreans eating kimchi and rice. But they divided us into 51 different castes. And I often say: think about the fruits. The top third of the caste is something called the warrior class. We call them tomatoes because you’re red inside, you’re red outside. Therefore, there’s no doubt that you believe in communism, so the government can reward you for your loyalty to the regime. The middle caste is the apple because inside you’re white and outside you’re red. Therefore, you need the government surveillance. You might believe in, or pretend to believe in, but you might not actually. The last third is completely screwed. It’s called grapes. You’re not even red outside. Therefore, you’re a hostile class; the government is going to persecute you generation after generation; a never ending persecution from your own government.
The sad part about what class you belong to in North Korea is not depending on what you do. It’s all dependent on what your ancestors did. Are you observing right now in America how Americans are being divided as an oppressor and oppressed? Who is a victim? Who is a perpetrator? It is based on what your ancestors did. Like how America is currently divided by skin color, the regime divided us by our ancestor’s heritage.
If your great grandfather was a land landowner, which was my case on my mom’s side; I had a great, great grandfather that I never met who owned the tiny land in his yard. Therefore, he was a landowner. So, by the time that I was born in North Korea, they said that my blood was tainted, that my genetics was oppressive to other people. There’s no redemption. There’s no way you can come out of there. Anybody born in that ancestry cannot be in that top class. By the time when I was 13 years old, that was in 2007, we could not find any food and this caste system I said, was determining who gets fat and who gets to starve to death. And because I was in a lower caste, I didn’t get anything from the government. The only thing that I could find at a younger age in North Korea was eating grasshoppers, eating dragonflies, eating plants. That’s how I survived. And even that was not coming by easy. So, we decide to escape. Have you guys seen the satellite picture of North Korean in the nighttime? Right. A lot of us have. It is like the darkest place in the world. There is no electricity in the 21st century in North Korea, not to even mention what Internet is. So, because I was living in the border town of North Korea at nighttime, I could see the lights, and light. And I thought if we went where the lights were, we could find something to eat. With that little hope of finding some food, my sister escaped at 16, and then she left me a note to follow her. My mother and I followed her to China. For the first time when I crossed Yalu River into China, I was headed by a lady. We didn’t ask this lady: why are you helping us to go to China? But the reason she was helping us to go to China was because she was selling us at the time as sex slaves. Our very first time we got to China–they were raping my mother–these people said, if you want to live in China, you have to be sold as sex slaves. And if you don’t, you can go back to North Korea. But going back meant getting caught by the authority, getting killed and tortured. And even if they didn’t catch us, we were going to die from starvation anyway.
I saw one thing, that made me change my mind and stay in China as a sex slave. For the first time in my life, I saw this thing– one basket, at this trafficker lady’s house. She was throwing some things in it. And I asked her: what is that? What is that you’re throwing?
And she’s like, It’s a trash can, sweetie. You don’t know what a trash can is. I answered: no, I don’t even literally know. She said, even if your hair is cut off, we need to use it to start a fire because there’s no central heating. When you start a fire with wood; anything we need it to burn to start a fire. And I couldn’t believe there was a country right next to us that people had something to throw away, and that was China. And I said, I want to stay in China because at least in China, I can find some food. With that, they sold my mother separate from me for $65 at the time, and then they sold to me for over $200. The reason I was more expensive than my mother was because I was a 13-year-old child virgin and a lot of perverted Chinese men would buy child virginity.
Actually, being in China, sold as a sex slave is actually not the worst thing can happen to us. There are places that we end up in China as North Korea women. The number one place that buys North Korean women are the organ harvesters. They buy us and they tie us and they harvest our organs while we are alive because that’s how you can get the most fresh organ out of somebody. And we only cost less than 100 bucks anyway, and then they discard our body afterwards. A second place they buy us are the sex brothers. I’ve been to this place. When I was there, they just brought this heavy, not even queen size, like double sized beds in a room where there are no windows and they throw the younger in there and don’t even feed her because they don’t want to waste time and then let her get raped like 500 times a day. And then the pain is so bad, they give her the drugs. And most of the girls die from disease and malnutrition. If you don’t get fed and get raped for three months and die within six months, then they buy a new girl. And the last place is where they sell us to the countryside.
You guys all know about China’s one child policy, right? Because of this evil one-child policy, a lot of Chinese people were aborting girls and kept only boys. There are right now more than 33 million Chinese men. Young men cannot find wives. And they are so poor in the countryside they cannot even buy one girl. So the country village men chip in and buy one girl and then they go and gang rape her until she dies. Right now there are 300,000 North Korean girls trapped in China. During the pandemic, this trafficker came with new technology where we can order these girls like on Ubereats. You hit a few buttons, they get delivered to your door and you can do whatever you want to this person.
I was there as a sex slave for two years from 13 to 15, and a miracle happened. That was in 2009. I met a North Korean lady, another defector lady who was also trafficked, and she said she knows Christian missionaries from South Korea who are rescuing North Korean defectors. And she said these people rescue the helpless and go somewhere to be safe. So I called this missionaries in China. I remember I called them. I had no idea about what missionaries were because in North Korea, if you read the Bible, you get killed. It is the most persecuted country for Christians. We don’t even know what that is [Christians]. And then this missionary says: “sweetie, I can help you to be free?” And for the first time, the moment I heard the word free, I was thinking: what do you mean, I’m going to be free? How do you explain freedom to a North Korean? You cannot say freedom is a freedom of religion and freedom of speech, right? This person did a perfect job. She said if you go to South Korea, you can’t wear jeans and you can watch k-dramas and nobody is going to arrest you for that. In North Korea, jeans are made in America, therefore it was a symbol of capitalism. They literally send you prison for wearing jeans. And I couldn’t believe– like really? there is a world where I can go and choose what to wear and what to watch? And they say, in order to do this, you have to go to South Korea. So I ask, how do I go to South Korea, I don’t have a passport. Chinese authorities constantly tried to catch us they said. So, you have to walk across frozen Gobi Desert from China to Mongolia and then cross 16 wire fences. And if you don’t get killed by minus 40 degree cold or starvation or animals, then you might make it to Mongolia and you might get rescued.
The chance of making it was not even 1%. So missionaries could not come with us. The only thing they could offer us was a compass in our hands and they said, go, follow north in this direction. Through some miracle, I didn’t get killed. I made through the dessert to my mother and I made it to freedom. But people don’t know how hard it is to be free, for the other people who are not born in freedom.
Do you know how many North Koreans made it to freedom– this promise-land over the last 80 years? Only 209 of us made it in the last 80 years to America. I was initially sent to South Korea for five years and I came to America in January 2016, to start my education at Columbia University. You would think this is a victory life, right? coming from the poorest nation in the world, not knowing what freedom, going to become a sex slave.
And now I was an Ivy League student in New York City. I came and I thought that was my journey to freedom kind of ended, and now I can just enjoy being a free person. When I got to Columbia University in 2016, my jaw dropped because the professors at Columbia University were teaching exactly the same things that my teachers taught me in the North Korean classroom. My professors were saying that every problem that we have and we had in the past is simply because of greedy capitalism and because of Western civilization and white men. And I thought, are you guys psychopaths? Literally, and these students are saying these things like how capitalism so evil. They are literally in their yoga pants and drinking green juice detox, choose to not emit by being a vegan, have a laptop in their hands and saying how they hate capitalism. I mean, without capitalism, how do you guys have anything that you have currently right now? And my professor was saying at orientation week: you need to be woke. And prior to coming to Colombia, in 2014, I learned English by watching the American TV show Friends. So, you know, my English dictionary was not quite updated. I was still like talking like Friends. And I’m thinking, I’m awake, like, how can I be more awake than now? And my instructor would teach, I’m going to give you example on how to be woke. Who likes to read Jane Austen? And I was at the time a big, huge reader, so I raised my hand. And the instructor said Jane Austen somehow argued in her books that only white men were capable of logical thinking, and she believed in white supremacy. Therefore, by reading her work, you are perpetuating this systemic racism. And that’s why and how you need to be woke to know hidden systemic racism. And then she continued to say that how math is made up by white men to control the minority and how math is racist. And I remember my lesson in North Korean classroom. My teacher one day asked me in North Korea: Yeonmi, what’s one plus one? What’s one plus one, guys? Yes. You’re confident in that? I said two, and my teacher said: wrong. She said, my dear leader Kim Jong Un discovered that one day as a child, he added one drop of water to another drop of water. What does it become? A bigger one? Yes. So that’s how he proved that math is made up by the white man and meant to control the minority.
This exact same bizarre lesson is being taught at Columbia University. I I couldn’t believe it. One day, I asked my classmates, why do you hate America so much? Why are you so anti-freedom, anti-America, anti-constitution and anti-capitalism? And they said, because capital is an evil, because it creates inequality. Look outside, there are homeless people and they are billionaires. It is an truly evil system. And to me it was like: what do you mean when you have room to rise. Would you rather live in a society where there’s no Steve Jobs and Elon Musk? Capitalism is not taking somebody else’s money. It is meeting somebody’s need or creating the need. It’s a service. It’s not like pillaging other people’s rights. I want to live in a country where somebody can be innovator and create rockets, an iPhone in my hand than not.
Inequality is a sign of progress. Anybody can rise, unlike North Korea where your birth status keeps you down for the rest of your generation, for life, for eternity. Would you rather be all equal, equal but poor and starving? They say they somehow want that feature. They want a future where American people are eating bugs, like how North Koreans did. And I would ask them: well, then you should move to North Korea because there’s no pollution whatsoever there. There is a zero impact happening inside North Korea. And they say socialism was never really properly implement in North Korea. And that they can implement it correctly this time in America for the first time.
I’m a mother. I have a son. He is almost turning six years old in a few months. I remember when I had him in Chicago at the Northwestern Hospital. The nurses gave me his birth certificate. On the birth certificate, it said his father is an American, born in Connecticut and his mother was born in North Korea. If I were in China, got pregnant and sent back to North Korea, the first thing the regime would do is kill the baby because they don’t believe in mixed race. My son only can exist in freedom in America. And now I’m worried for him because he’s just like North Korean, like me. If he succeeds in his life, the society cannot say: blame his privilege because you are half white and half Asian. If he fails, nobody is going to have any sympathy for him, also because of his skin color. I don’t know how America got to this place because I only arrived here in 2016, and I know this country in on a very, very dangerous path.
Last year I became American myself. (Applause). Thank you. Thank you so much. Such an irony moment, though. I thought this is the greatest honor of my life becoming American. And then by that time when I was becoming American, I was not a South Korean responsibility anymore. I was protected by South Korean intelligence up until moment. And they were the ones saying how I was on the killing list of Kim Jong Un and what country to avoid, to avoid the North Korean agents. They were protecting me until last year. And they said, Well, now you’re American. I’m sure America has better resources and they can protect you better. And interestingly enough, the same month I got a call from FBI. They said, FBI Texas. They said we want to hear about how you survived and how you became free. So why don’t you come here and give us your speech? I was very excited, thinking if they were interested in hearing my story then maybe they can protect me too. Two days before my speech, the head of diversity from FBI calls me. Did you know, that’s a job. Somebody’s job is a head of diversity. Legally, that’s a job in the FBI and this lady calls me saying that she has cancelled my event because of my political opinions. So, I got cancelled by FBI from agents that need to protect me right now. And that same week when I became American citizen guys, interestingly enough, my interviewer asked me, have you ever persecuted anybody for their political opinions? If I said yes, I could not become an American. Our country currently is run by the people who do not understand what it means to be American, what it means to be free. And I hope all of us can wake up before it’s too late and we can somehow find our freedom back. And that’s why I’m here. I never knew that I was going to talk about how I’m oppressed in America, but currently I am getting cancelled. I’m getting censored.
But I hope you don’t lose hope because at least in America currently, standing up is not a public execution. It might be how we lose our jobs. We might get named as a conspiracy theorist, racist, but in North Korea, if you stand up, it’s execution. And because of that, we should not lose hope and keep using our voices and speak for our rights.
Thank you so much, everyone.