First, I feel a little bad rating In Order to Live: a North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom three stars. Park’s life story to the point of her writing this book, just 21 years, is full of the sort of deprivations, suffering, drive to survive, and eventually hope that make you want to love the work. Yeonmi Park’s life deserves notice and her book deserves to be read. Unfortunately for me, it felt more like homework than a captivating read.
Second, there are some books we read to bear witness. This is one of those books. The human rights violations that exist in North Korea are so large as to be almost unbelievable but are all too true. The country is one of the most repressive places on earth, where all civil and political liberties are denied to citizens, including freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion. The government routinely tortures people in custody, and public executions are used to maintain fear and control over the population. forced, unpaid labor is extract from its citizens— including women, children, and prisoners. These and other things are chronicled in Park’s work, as she tells her story, but also the story of her family – many of whom are still in North Korea. But that is only one section of the book, China and human trafficking are also on full display as Park chooses to speak openly about what she and her mother experienced when they fled North Korea for China and how their suffering there in the year leading up to the Beijing Olympics pushed them to find a way out.
For me, I understand why Park wrote this book when she did, as a tidal wave of humanitarian work and speaking engagements crested in 2014. While she did have a coauthor, this book still sounds under formed, too light. Perhaps it is a reflex to keep the narrative moving across the atrocities and into the hope. For Park, it’s the hope that exists in freedom that pushed her to a place to write the book at all.