As a 13-year-old, Yeonmi Park escaped across the North Korean border into China, before eventually making her way to South Korea. Now a 30-year-old human rights activist living in the United States, Park spoke to an audience of 400 at Utah Valley University on Wednesday evening, where she described her path to freedom and why she thinks Americans need to not take it for granted.

Park’s hometown, Hyesan, is about a mile from the Chinese border, and at night as a child, she said she could see lights in the distance in the nearby Chinese town. She wondered how they could have lights on at night when people in her town couldn’t.

“Maybe if I could go where the lights were, I could have a bowl of rice,” she said to her audience at UVU. Though she eventually reached a place where she had the freedom to live as she wished, Park said initially, “I wasn’t searching for anything besides a bowl of rice.”

In an interview with the Deseret News, Park explained how Kim Il-Song told the North Korean people they should worship him. “He copied the Bible. He said I’m the god who loves you guys so much, I’m giving you my son Kim Jung Il.”

In her book, “In Order to Live,” Park recalls her mother’s warning to always censor her words: “Even when you think you’re alone, the birds and mice can hear you whisper.” North Koreans are told to not even think poorly of their leaders.

Park sees a correlation between religion and democracy. Before the Korean War, Pyeongyang was known as the Jerusalem of the East. Today, Park said “the hardest country to be a Christian is North Korea.”

For communist countries like North Korea to function, “you have to worship the state, not God,” Park explained. She compared South Korea’s economic success with North Korea’s. “I don’t know what the connection is, but South Korea became very blessed when they embraced Christianity.”

Park told the Deseret News how she personally came to Christianity. “I met God in a way when I became a mother,” she said. In 2018, Park had a son. “There’s not a word for it, there doesn’t need to be a rationality to it, you just feel the presence of God.”

“I think you see the national decline, morality decline, civility decline when people move away from God,” she said. “I think that’s what’s been happening in a lot of American cities.”

Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector and bestselling author, answers interview questions at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

‘Sweetie, if you go to South Korea, you can wear jeans’

At UVU, Park described her journey out of North Korea. She told the audience at UVU her initial desire to leave North Korea came after getting her appendix unnecessarily removed at a hospital in her village. Park said in North Korea, “people don’t die from cancer, they die from infection.”

Park said doctors removed her appendix even though she just had an infection. “After this operation, I decided to get out of North Korea,” she said.

After Park’s older sister escaped without warning, Park and her parents decided to leave as well. Park’s father planned to meet them across the border in China after Park and her mom left.

When at the age of 13, Park and her mother first escaped across the border into China, they met a woman who said she wanted to help them. Park said they quickly realized the woman was “helping” them by trafficking them in the sex industry.

After two years, Park met South Korean Christians rescuing defectors. One of them tried to explain what freedom was like to Park and said, “Sweetie, if you go to South Korea, you can wear jeans, and you can watch K-dramas, and nobody’s going to arrest you for that.”

Park said the South Koreans told her and her mother how to get out of China and get to South Korea. It required them to walk across across the Gobi Desert into Mongolia. “From some miracle, I did not die in the Gobi Desert,” Park said.

Once she made it to South Korea, Park said she learned “freedom was responsibility,” adding, “after five years of learning freedom, I came to America.”

Park became a mother in 2018 and graduated from Columbia University in 2020.

During her speech, Park got emotional as she talked about her son. “In America, I became a mom, and my son got a birth certificate that mom was born in North Korea and dad was born in America,” she said. “Only in freedom can this child exist.”

Park warns against socialism

The UVU event was sponsored by the Young America’s Foundation, and Park compared the ideology she observed as a student at Columbia with the ideology she learned in North Korea. Park told the UVU audience, “The professors were telling us the only solution was us destroying America and the American Constitution and then rebuilding this country in the name of equity, which meant socialism.”

“These professors learned about socialism in their textbooks, in their comfortable rooms with their air conditioning, on their nice computers with internet,” she said

“They were saying amazing things about socialism and how it would save all of us and take us to a paradise,” she continued. “Instead of a theory, I lived it because I was born in North Korea, a so-called socialist paradise.”

Socialism “promises equality of outcomes,” Park said, comparing it with North Korea’s 51 different social classes. Park explained how the North Korean government divided up social classes after the Korean War, saying landowners and individuals who were anti-communism were put at the bottom. Anyone related to people at the bottom were also placed there.

Living in New York City, Park described conversations she’s had with her friends who “want socialism so bad.” They told her, “Look outside, there are billionaires, and there are homeless people. Capitalism creates inequality, therefore it’s evil.”

“What do you mean that you can be a billionaire?” Park asked. “If you work hard like Steve Jobs, create an iPhone, like Elon Musk creating rockets, you mean that I can be a billionaire? What a concept,” she said.

She continued, “What a thing to celebrate, that you can rise up, that you don’t all need to be equally poor and starving together. Inequality is not a sign of oppression, it’s a sign of progress.”