“Trade for Yourself, Think for Yourself” Says Defector Yeonmi Park

North Korean defector Yeonmi Park addresses the Oslo Freedom Forum on Oct. 21, 2014.

North Korean defector Yeonmi Park addresses the Oslo Freedom Forum on October 21, 2014. (YouTube)

Among the many speeches I heard while at the Oslo Freedom Forum last month, there is one in particular that stuck with me.

Not just because of the shock value of the content or the emotional presentation, but because of the notion that there is hope for the hermit nation of North Korea, still today the victim of a decades-long extreme interpretation of socialist ideology.

That idea was presented by Yeonmi Park, a young North Korean defector with impressive English and a keen insight on one of the greatest developments to come out of the isolationist nation: an illicit market growing and prospering despite totalitarian rule.

The North Korean black market not only exists, says Yeonmi, but it is vibrant and giving people hope.

“Everyone knows they have to break the rules by operating in markets to survive,” she told the audience at the Oslo Freedom Forum. “But once you start trading for yourself, you start thinking for yourself.”


Yeonmi Park addresses the 2014 Oslo Freedom Forum in Oslo, Norway. (PanAm Post)

The reason she finds herself speaking around the world and sharing her story, she says, is because her father was arrested for trading in the black market, and she and her mother decided to flee. She eventually escaped through China to Mongolia, finally making it to South Korea in 2009.

Her speech describes her timeline from her first trades on the North Korean black market as a child, getting around the strict policies of the Kim Jong-il regime. She relates the story of learning about love from the movie Titanic, and at last understanding North Korean propaganda once she read George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

“This book set me free from the emotional dictators in my head,” said Yeonmi. “Titanic opened my eyes to see that people can live differently, and there is something else out there; the black market gave me an opportunity to be exposed to the outside world, and Animal Farm set me free from brainwashing.”

This, she said, despite being constantly told that her life was only meaningful if dedicated to the great rulers.

“We were taught that dying for the regime was the most honorable thing we could do,” she explained. “North Koreans deserve freedom. They deserve more.”

I have the pleasure of also being a Young Voices Advocate, along with Yeonmi. I was able to speak with her amid the glitter and glamor of the evening’s processions, and she was nothing but cheerful to be surrounded by people who care about the advancement of human freedom.

“I love what all the people here are doing. Freedom is a good thing,” she told me. And there isn’t anything more inspiring than hearing that from someone who has had to live in arguably the worst state on the planet today.