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Home » What I Learned About Freedom After Escaping North Korea: Yeonmi Park (Transcript)

What I Learned About Freedom After Escaping North Korea: Yeonmi Park (Transcript)

Yeonmi Park at TED Talks

Here is the full text of Yeonmi Park’s talk: What I Learned About Freedom After Escaping North Korea.


I was born in 1993 in the northern part of North Korea, in a town called Hyesan, which is on the border with China. I had loving parents and one older sister.

Before I was even 10 years old, my father was sent to a labor camp for engaging in illegal trading. Now, by illegal trading — he was selling clogs, sugar, rice and later copper to feed us.

In 2007, my sister and I decided to escape. She was 16 years old, and I was 13 years old. I need you to understand what the word “escape” means in the context of North Korea.

We were all starving, and hunger means death in North Korea. So it was the only option for us. I didn’t even understand the concept of escape, but I could see the lights from China at night. And I wondered if I go where the light is, I might be able to find a bowl of rice.

It’s not like we had a grand plan or maps. We did not know anything about what was going to happen. Imagine your apartment building caught fire. I mean, what would you do?

Would you stay there to be burned, or would you jump off out of the window and see what happens? That’s what we did. We jumped out of the house instead of the fire.

North Korea is unimaginable. It’s very hard for me when people ask me what it feels like to live there.

To be honest, I tell you: you can’t even imagine it. The words in any language can’t describe, because it’s a totally different planet, as you cannot imagine your life on Mars right now.

For example, the word “love” has only one meaning: love for the Dear Leader. There’s no concept of romantic love in North Korea. And if you don’t know the words, that means you don’t understand the concept, and therefore, you don’t even realize that concept is even a possibility.

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Let me give you another example. Growing up in North Korea, we truly believed that our Dear Leader is an almighty god who can even read my thoughts.

I was even afraid to think in North Korea. We are told that he’s starving for us, and he’s working tirelessly for us, and my heart just broke for him.

When I escaped to South Korea, people told me that he was actually a dictator, he had cars, many, many resorts, and he had an ultraluxurious life.

And then I remember looking at a picture of him, realizing for the first time that he is the largest guy in the picture. And it hit me.

Finally, I realized he wasn’t starving. But I was never able to see that before, until someone told me that he was fat.

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Really, someone had to teach me that he was fat. If you have never practiced critical thinking, then you simply see what you’re told to see.

The biggest question also people ask me is: “Why is there no revolution inside North Korea? Are we dumb? Why is there no revolution for 70 years of this oppression?”

And I say: If you don’t know you’re a slave, if you don’t know you’re isolated or oppressed, how do you fight to be free? I mean, if you know you’re isolated, that means you are not isolated.

Not knowing is the true definition of isolation, and that’s why I never knew I was isolated when I was in North Korea. I literally thought I was in the center of the universe.

So here is my idea worth spreading: a lot of people think humans inherently know what is right and wrong, the difference between justice and injustice, what we deserve and we don’t deserve. I tell them: BS.

Everything… everything must be taught, including compassion. If I see someone dying on the street right now, I will do anything to save that person.

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But when I was in North Korea, I saw people dying and dead on the streets. I felt nothing. Not because I’m a psychopath, but because I never learned the concept of compassion. Only, I felt compassion, empathy and sympathy in my heart after I learned the word “compassion” and the concept, and I feel them now.

Now I live in the United States as a free person.

Thank you.

And recently, the leader of the free country, our President Trump, met with my former god. And he decided human rights is not important enough to include in his agendas, and he did not talk about it. And it scares me.

We live in a world right now where a dictator can be praised for executing his uncle, for killing his half brother, killing thousands of North Koreans. And that was worthy of praise.

And also it made me think: perhaps we all need to be taught something new about freedom now. Freedom is fragile. I don’t want to alarm you, but it is.

It only took three generations to make North Korea into George Orwell’s “1984.” It took only three generations. If we don’t fight for human rights for the people who are oppressed right now who don’t have a voice, as free people here, who will fight for us when we are not free? Machines? Animals? I don’t know.

I think it’s wonderful that we care about climate change, animal rights, gender equality, all of these things. The fact that we care about animals’ rights, that means that’s how beautiful our heart is, that we care about someone who cannot speak for themselves.

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