Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Escaping North Korea

This last weekend, I had the great pleasure of attending the 4th ALS Friedman conference in Sydney. It's was a pretty standard libertarian conference on a rather large scale (350-ish people) with really high-profile speakers, great discussions, meeting cool people, and chatting over dinner and in bars. Lots of fun, very intellectual and of course a shortage of sleep. This particular conference with its focus on "wide-tent libertarianism" and "activism" was however sometimes getting rather absurd, where liberal party members are suddenly 'libertarians', ministers were all around and many displayed a very uncanny respect for politicians ("I acknowledge my fellow politicians in the room..").

The main attraction, hands-down the best and most touching speak was by Yeonmi Park, the North Korean defector who escaped from the misery of totalitarian socialism back in 2007, at the age of thirteen. She told us her absolutely heart-wrenching story of growing up in the northern parts of North Korea, facing incredible hardships and famines and dangers I can scarcely imagine, as well as the even more dangerous escape across the river into China - where North Koreans are lawless and heavily abused. She told us unimaginable horrors, watching her mother being raped in front of her upon arriving in China, being sold into slavery, tricked, abused and separated from her mother. If illegal North Koreans are found in China, they are sent back, facing severe punishment or even execution - which many unscrupulous Chinese know, and use to threaten them into doing literally whatever.


She tells her story in even more detail in her recent book, In Order To Live, which I couldn't wait to get my hands on, and went through it day and night. It's a story of tears and misery and suffering - but also of overcoming hardship, never losing hope and growing up way-to-quickly. I wanna share a couple of quotes from her book, but first a few observations from her speech.

This super-tiny, humble North Korean girl has been through more suffering than I can even comprehend. Yet she mixes her story with humour: of how she couldn't understand why anyone made a movie of such a shameful event as Titanic, of her first confused experience with a South Korean toilet, that 'love' for people rather than the Dear Leader was an unknown concept to her, that math classes in her childhood were "if I kill two American Bastards, and you kill three American Bastards, how many American Bastards are dead?". And when audience greets her with standing ovations that go on and on, most of us with tears in our eyes, she gets really uncomfortable, bows humbly and waves us all down. The amount of self-knowledge and ability to use humour to heal is remarkable, as is her dignity and humility and kindness.   

In the introduction to her book she says this:
Along my journey I have seen the horrors that humans can inflict on one another, but I've also witnessed acts of tenderness and kindness and sacrifice in the worst imaginable circumstances. I know that it is possible to lose part of your humanity in order to survive. But I also know that the spark of human dignity is never completely extinguished, and that given the oxygen of freedom and the power of love, it can grow again. (p. 6)
The best thing she said in the Q&A section was in response to a question about socialists. Not far from our venue, a similar conference on Socialism was taking place, and a friend of mine asked what she would say if she could speak to them:
- "Ship them all off to North Korea!"

Polemics and mockery aside, she has a point.

The most eerie thing she told us was how she grew up believing that Kim Jong Il could literally read her mind. When her mother sent her off to school she always said "take care of your mouth", and Yeonmi conveys several stories where the worst wrongdoing was saying or thinking illegal things rather than doing them. That kind of self-censorship and pure-thoughts-only are intimidating, and she points out that North Koreans are experts at doublethink - a concept she enthusiastically learned from George Orwell once she had escaped:
This 'doublethink' is how you can shout slogans denouncing capitalism in the morning, then browse through the market in the afternoon to buy smuggled South Korean cosmetics. It is how you can believe that North Korea is a socialist paradise, the best country in the world with the happiest people who have nothing to envy, while devouring movies and TV programs that show ordinary people in enemy nations enjoying a level of prosperity that you couldn't imagine in your dreams. (p. 53-54)
That's something not only my leftie friends can identify with, but also my fellow economics students. And she conveys her first experience of the black markets as an eleven-year-old:
I learned something important from my short time as a market vendor: once you start trading for yourself, you start thinking for yourself. Before the public distribution system collapsed, the government alone decided who would survive and who would starve. The markets took away the government's control. My small market transactions made me realize that I had some control over my own fate. It gave me another tiny taste of freedom. (p. 91)
Capitalism has done so for centuries in the west, for decades in China and India. And Scott Sumner recently joked that "reality has a neoliberal bias"; markets have, do and will set us free.

The most impressive elements of Yeonmi's story is her burning desire to live, to overcome, to withstand and to reach freedom. Ever after having safely reached South Korea in 2009, she struggled to catch up academically, become part of a society, make friends and overcoming her traumatic experiences. She says she was determined to understand this new world, and read about 100 books a year. A hundred books a year, many of which are classic stories I haven't even read yet. She relates the story when she convinced her mother to cross the freezing Gobi desert into Mongolia for safe passage to South Korea:
As soon as I heard this women's story, I knew we had to get to Mongolia. My mother was afraid. We had a good thing in Shenyang, she said. It was too risky to leave, she said, and she tried to talk me out of it. But I felt an old hunger burning in me, one that told me there was more to life than just surviving. I didn't know what would happen to us, but I knew I would rather die than live like this anymore - I knew in my heart that I deserved to be treated like a person, not a hunted animal. Once again, I grabbed my mother's hands and wouldn't let go until she agreed to come with me to Mongolia. (p. 184)
In her last few chapters, Yeonmi tells us the story of reuniting with her sister Eunmi after seven years apart, of how she has gone on to be even more outspoken, giving talks and lectures all around the world - even to the point that the North Korean regime made propaganda videos about her, denouncing her as a "human rights propaganda puppet".

North Korea is captivating through its sheer craziness, and as Michael Malice repeatedly has said on the Tom Woods show: everyone is a libertarian visavi North Korea (here and here).

Taken together, Yeonmi's stories are incredible, inspiring, horrible and brave and they make you cry from laughter on one page and misery on another. An incredible person and I was very lucky indeed to have heard her story.

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