Yeonmi Park was nine years old when she was invited to watch her best friend’s mother be shot.
Growing up in North Korea, Yeonmi had seen executions before. She remembers her mother piggybacking her to public squares and sports stadiums to watch the spectacles used by Kim Jong-il’s Workers’ Party to silence even the slightest whisper of dissent.
But this killing lodged in her mind. Yeonmi watched in horror as the woman she knew was lined up alongside eight other prisoners and her sentence was read out. Her crime was having watched South Korean films and lending the DVDs to friends. Her punishment in this most paranoid of dictatorships was death by firing squad.
As the executioners raised their weapons, Yeonmi covered her face. But she looked up again, just in time to see an explosion of blood and the woman’s body crumple to the ground. ‘It was a shock,’ she remembers. ‘It was the first time I felt terrified.’
Yeonmi is recounting the horrific incident over a milkshake in Seoul, the ultra-modern capital of South Korea that is only 35 miles from the North Korean border but, with its luxury cars and 10-lane motorways, feels like another planet. Twelve years have passed since that day, and Yeonmi, now 21, is one of tens of thousands of North Korean defectors who have escaped one of the world’s most reclusive and repressive regimes.
Yeonmi was born on October 4 1993 in Hyesan, a notoriously cold river port along North Korea’s 850-mile northern border with China. The following year, on July 8, Kim Il-sung, the country’s 82-year-old founder and ‘Great Leader’, died of a heart attack. Hopes that he might have been ready to gradually open North Korea to the world evaporated as his son Kim Jong-il took power and set about transforming the hermit nation into a member of George W Bush’s notorious ‘axis of evil’.
Yeonmi Park in Seoul, where she now studies and raises awareness for the plight of her compatriots in North Korea PHOTO: JeongMee Yoon