review of Yeonmi Park’s memoir In Order to Live

If this were a work of fiction, I’d complain that its portrayal of poverty and deprivation is extreme to the point of caricature. In North Korea, Park and her sister were sometimes so hungry they would eat wild flowers and catch dragonflies to roast. A fertilizer shortage led to a requirement that everyone collect a certain quota of human and animal feces:

Some people would lock up their outhouses to keep the poop thieves away. At school, the teachers would send us out into the streets to find poop and carry it back to class. … My uncle … had a big dog who made a big poop, and everyone in the family would fight over it. This is not something you see every day in the West.

Doctors had to grow medicinal plants themselves. “Nurses go from room to room using the same syringe on every patient.” Park woke up during her appendectomy because her family could only acquire a small amount of anesthetic.

Things had not always been so bad:

While my parents were growing up, the distribution system was still subsidized by the Soviet Union and China, so few people were starving, but nobody outside the elite really prospered.

Park makes the entire country sound like a giant cult. She really thought Kim Il-sung had superhuman powers (including telepathy and weather control) and that he showed his great love for all the people of North Korea by tireless, self-sacrificing work on their behalf.

“Please, please, dear Leader, take a good rest for us,” we sang [at school] through our tears. “We are all crying for you.”

She indicates that her father saw through the bullshit (though only rarely dared to express his opinions aloud) but that she and her mother were true believers. Just another example of how easily people can become deeply attached to wildly improbable ideas. Worshiping a man they’ve never met, putting complete faith in third-hand accounts of his extraordinary abilities, feeling profuse gratitude and loyalty toward him for allegedly saving them from an unverifiable threat… remind you of anything?

Ideology notwithstanding, life became difficult enough that Park and her family felt they had to get out. But the man who smuggled Park and her mother into China delivered them to sex traffickers, and the next phase of Park’s life was full of heartbreaking abuse.

Eventually, the two made their way to South Korea with the assistance of a Christian missionary organization—though the pastor nearly refused them passage at the last minute, berating them for having been involved in sex work and relenting only after they made a groveling show of repentance. Park encountered this disgusting attitude toward women who had been trafficked—as if they were degenerates who had sullied themselves rather than victims of heinous crimes—in South Korea as well, along with general anti-immigrant bias. Humans are so easily tempted into believing that others’ misfortunes are deserved, and lazily assuming that we could have somehow done better in their circumstances.

Not everyone thinks Park is being entirely truthful about her experiences; I have no way of knowing. She seems to have aligned herself with right-wing forces in American politics, which will inevitably make some of my fellow liberals suspicious, but I think it’s pretty understandable that she would gravitate in that direction if her childhood environment was even loosely like what she described. One reason that I feel much more alarmed about declining regard for freedom of speech1 than many people who I’m otherwise more politically aligned with is my own experience of living in a religious subculture where social pressure was used to discourage deviation. And that pressure was very, very mild by comparison to the pressure Park describes in North Korea.

  1. Note that I see freedom of speech as a value we should try to uphold, to varying degrees, in a wide range of social relations. Laws like the First Amendment are just one manifestation of that value, in the same way that (for example) laws against assault are just one manifestation of our values of kindness and mutual respect. Just like I should often be more kind toward other people than it would be appropriate for the government to require me to be, I should often be more tolerant of dissenting voices within spaces I have influence over than it would be appropriate for the government to require me to be. ↩︎