Home Blog Defector Yeonmi Park's shocking North Korea stories draw questions – The Washington Post

Defector Yeonmi Park's shocking North Korea stories draw questions – The Washington Post

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Megyn Kelly introduced a guest on a February episode of her podcast with an unusual caveat: “People have been coming for” Yeonmi Park, she said, by accusing the North Korean defector turned American conservative activist of telling false stories about her home country.
The host acknowledged some shifting aspects of Park’s accounts — but “whatever!” she concluded. Kelly assured listeners that she had fact-checked Park’s story, and “as incredible as they were, her descriptions of North Korea checked out.” Later, she urged Park to run for office.
Sixteen years after fleeing the brutal regime, Park has become a multiplatform star in America, appearing on “The Joe Rogan Experience” and other popular podcasts, amassing a YouTube following of more than 1 million subscribers and selling more than 100,000 copies of “In Order to Live,” her 2015 memoir about the cruelties and deprivations of life under the communist dictatorship.
Now, though, Park is making the media rounds to raise alarms about another nation: the United States.
Citing her experiences as a student at Columbia University, Park styles herself as “the enemy of the woke,” warning that America is on the verge of liberal dictatorship and that “cancel culture” at U.S. colleges is the first step toward North Korean-style firing squads. It’s the theme of her new book, “While Time Remains,” published in February by a conservative imprint of Simon & Schuster. As of early July, the book, which features a foreword from Canadian professor and conservative lifestyle guru Jordan Peterson, had sold at least 35,000 copies, according to sales-tracking service NPD BookScan.
“North Korea is not even this nuts,” Park said in a 2021 podcast appearance as the host, Tim Pool, fretted vaguely about “big tech censorship” and people whom he asserted are afraid to share their true opinions on social media for fear of losing their jobs.
“This is how we go there,” she concurred. “This is how it begins.”
Park, 29, has been embraced by members of the “heterodox” movement, media personalities who often don’t consider themselves traditional conservatives but express skepticism — or outright mockery — of liberal “social justice” efforts. Former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss ran an excerpt of Park’s book on her news site, the Free Press. Hedge fund director and Peter Thiel associate Eric Weinstein called for Park to become Twitter’s new CEO.
But while Park’s moral authority as political pundit rests on her experience as a refugee from an authoritarian pariah state, she has been dogged for years by accusations that some of her more lurid tales of state vengeance and extreme societal decay don’t add up.
Scholars on North Korea who are skeptical of Park say she’s symptomatic of a booming market for horror stories from the cloistered nation that they believe encourages some “celebrity” defectors to spin increasingly outlandish claims.
Jay Song, a University of Melbourne professor of Korean studies, says Park has been “very enterprising” in presenting her story. But she worries it will undermine the reputations of North Korean defectors more broadly.
“They just try to survive in South Korea or elsewhere, and they’re working very hard,” Song said. “A character like Yeonmi Park — it’s really misrepresenting the entire community.”
Representatives for Park didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Park, now a U.S. citizen, isn’t the only political pundit to get her start on reality TV. But her particular launchpad would seem far more exotic to American audiences than “Survivor” or MTV’s “The Real World.”
A South Korean TV hit since its debut in 2011, “Now On My Way to Meet You” began as an emotional docuseries about reunifying families separated by the Korean War. But it quickly evolved into a bright, brisk variety show focusing on young women from the North — referred to as “defector beauties” — who banter flirtatiously with male South Korean comedians, perform skits and discuss the lives they left behind. A teenager when she was cast as a regular panelist, Park quickly broke out as a star.
It was on the show that the basic outlines of her biography first emerged. According to Park, she was born in 1993 in the city of Hyesan, near the Chinese border. Her early childhood there and in the capital city of Pyongyang coincided with a famine that killed an estimated hundreds of thousands of North Koreans each year. Her father, a member of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, smuggled metals on the black market to support his family and was eventually sentenced to a prison term.
In 2007, when Park was 13, she fled across the Chinese border, spending a couple of years there before making her way with her mother into South Korea, via Mongolia, with the help of Christian missionaries.
Yet, while most of Park’s “Now On My Way to Meet You” co-stars recounted stories of deprivation, she was dubbed “Paris Hilton” because of the tales she told of her family’s relative wealth in North Korea — a lifestyle accessorized with imported Japanese fashion and Chanel bags.
A new generation of North Korean defectors is thriving in Seoul
While making her name on the show, Park also began making political connections. Freedom Factory, a libertarian think tank in Seoul, hired her as a media fellow; she soon got another such role with Young Voices, a D.C.-based talent agency and PR firm connected to the Atlas Network, a free-market-boosting nonprofit funded by Koch foundations and other U.S. conservative donors. In 2014, she published an op-ed in The Washington Post — co-written with an Atlas Network fellow, with whom she also hosted a podcast — predicting that her “Black Market Generation” of North Koreans who had grown up enjoying Western luxury goods and bootleg copies of “Pretty Woman” would soon force a capitalist revolt from within.
Her worldwide breakthrough came in October 2014 with a speech at the human rights-focused One Young World Summit in Ireland. Dressed in a traditional hanbok dress, Park urged the audience to support North Koreans suffering under the dictatorial rule of the Kim dynasty.
The video went viral, garnering more than 80 million views, turning Park into one of the most famous North Korea defectors in the world — and landing her a book contract.
With the publication of “In Order to Live” — a collaboration with Maryanne Vollers, a veteran ghostwriter for Billie Jean King, Hillary Clinton and Ashley Judd — Park began presenting a far more harrowing description of her North Korean life than she had shared with her South Korean TV fans.
In U.S. media appearances and her book, Park portrayed a childhood in which dead bodies were a frequent specter. In one particularly grotesque image, she described seeing starving children forced to eat rats, only to die because the rats were poisoned. Then, other rats devoured their corpses.
Experts on North Korea took note of the strikingly different bio that emerged when Park moved from reality TV to the international human rights conference circuit. Her “Paris Hilton” character was nowhere in this story. Park claimed that she never encountered eggs or indoor toilets until she left North Korea, that she resorted to eating grass and dragonflies to survive.
“She once presented herself as a top 1 percent North Korea elite, so she didn’t see any hunger or malnutrition when she was living there,” Song said. “She totally flipped the narrative when she was on to these conferences.”
Christine Hong, a literature professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a board member at the Korea Policy Institute who has studied defector narratives, noted that Park’s new account didn’t even jibe with her mother’s stories of ready access to food and luxuries. (In one “Now On My Way to Meet You” appearance, the mother explained that Park couldn’t comprehend that her less privileged co-stars came from the same country that she did.)
“But no one seems to care,” Hong told The Post. “And the reason that no one seems to care is that, when it comes to North Korea, it’s basically an informational free-for-all.”
Park tried to address those discrepancies in her memoir, explaining that she didn’t disclose her childhood hardships in her South Korean television appearances because “I no longer even thought about it.”
Cracks in Park’s story had already emerged even before her publishing debut. Mary Ann Jolley, a journalist who interviewed Park for an Australian documentary in 2014, pointed out multiple other inconsistencies in a story for the Diplomat, a news site focused on East Asia.
For example, Park claimed to have seen a friend’s mother executed in a stadium for the crime of watching a Hollywood movie. (In other accounts, it was a South Korean DVD.) But other defectors from Hyesan told Jolley that executions were never carried out in the stadium, and that no executions happened in the city during the time period she described.
The largest discrepancy highlighted by Jolley concerned the family’s departure from North Korea. In her initial accounts, Park claimed that she left the country with both of her parents, helped by Chinese contacts her father met while smuggling.
“There were cars to get us because of the connections with Chinese people, and then we went to China directly,” Park said in a 2014 appearance two months before her viral speech.
Park presented a different story in her Ireland speech, saying that only she and her mother fled the country, and that they did so on foot, joined later by her father, who eventually died in China. In this version of the story, repeated in her memoir and in many subsequent interviews, Park’s mother was raped by a human trafficker, sacrificing herself to save Park from the man, and both women were sexually abused and trafficked in China for years before ultimately escaping.
In an email to the Diplomat, Park blamed the inconsistencies in her stories on translation issues and her inexperience with English. In a February appearance on comedian Andrew Schulz’s online show, Park said she had initially not revealed her story about human trafficking and rape on South Korea television because she feared the stigma would keep her from finding a husband. Vollers also attributed “minor discrepancies” in Park’s stories to translation issues and wrote in the Guardian in 2015 that she took steps to verify Park’s claims.
“Yeon-mi was giving interviews in English before she was fully fluent,” Vollers wrote.
Park quickly became an in-demand speaker on human rights. But, as she would later describe it, she soon ran into a new kind of authoritarianism, right in the United States.
Park moved to New York City in 2014 and enrolled at Columbia. Park found her classmates perpetually seething over perceived “microaggressions,” she later wrote. They weren’t the only oversensitive people she encountered: In “While Time Remains,” Park described running afoul of an unspoken campus code when she praised Jane Austen during orientation.
“Wrong!” a professor thundered at her, in Park’s telling. “Those books promote female oppression, racism, colonialism, and white supremacy!”
A spokesperson for Columbia declined to comment on the anecdote.
Park’s latest book chronicles what she describes as her disenchantment with American liberalism. She sees criticism of U.S. policy and society from the left as a dominant ideology that she equates to the anti-American propaganda she was fed as a young person in North Korea — and she argues that it is just as dangerous. Many of her examples are personal: She describes her irritation when a book agent, after the success of her first memoir, asked her to take on what she saw as liberal topics, such as feminism or the treatment of Black prisoners. (Literary agent Amanda “Binky” Urban, who represented Park in the sale of her first book, told The Post that she isn’t the agent Park is referring to.) Park continued to appear at events as a human rights advocate, but she had started to sour on the predominantly liberal circles they brought her into.
“In North Korea, everything’s about America, everything horrible,” Park said in an online appearance with conservative talk radio host Dennis Prager. “And in Columbia, exact same thing. Everything is about the problem with America and White men.”
As Park tells it, another foundational event in her turn against American political correctness came in August 2020, amid unrest after the police murder of George Floyd. Park, who by then had married an American man and had a baby, was living in Chicago. (Her son is doomed by “woke” politics, she wrote in “While Time Remains”: “He is half-Caucasian, half-Asian — the very peak of the ‘privilege’ pyramid.” Park and her husband divorced in 2020.) On a walk with her child and nanny, Park was mugged by what she described in a 2021 appearance on Rogan’s podcast as three Black women. When Park tried to call the police, she claimed, as many as 20 White people surrounded her and accused her of being racist.
“The bystanders who watched it happen refused to intervene because of the color of my skin, and that of the assailants,” Park wrote in her new book.
A key element of Park’s account is that while police arrested the suspects, they were never prosecuted. “Of course, they are not going to prosecute these girls,” Park said on Rogan’s podcast. “There’s so much crime in Chicago, they are not going to prosecute somebody who robs. And that’s when I was thinking, ‘This country lost it.’”
But, according to a Chicago police statement obtained by the Daily Mail in 2021, Park was robbed not by three women but a woman and a man — and the female suspect was indeed charged with a crime, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. (Park, in her most recent book, acknowledged that the mugger was prosecuted.)
Park thanks a number of American conservative and “heterodox” figures in the acknowledgments of her new book, including Weiss, Breitbart News editor Emma-Jo Morris and YouTube host Dave Rubin. Her book agent and spokesman, Jonathan Bronitsky, worked as the chief speechwriter for Trump administration attorney general William P. Barr. She told the New York Times that she makes $6,600 a month working for the young-conservatives group Turning Point USA.
Many of Park’s most eye-catching claims about the deprivations and cruelties of North Korean life have come in podcast appearances that coincided with her rebranding as the “enemy of the woke.”
A train journey that would take a mere hour in the United States? “In North Korea, it would take a month at least to go [the same distance],” Park told a shocked Rogan in her 2021 appearance on his show. “Because there’s no electricity, and sometimes people have to push the train.”
Her tales of the gothic punishments that await dissidents are widely shared on YouTube, where videos with titles such as “THIS is a Crime in North Korea!?” can earn more than 10 million views.
These stories are drawing fresh scrutiny.
Andrei Lankov, a professor at South Korea’s Kookmin University who made the first of his many research trips to North Korea in the 1980s, said many of Park’s stories have little resemblance to what he and other experts have experienced in the country or understand to be the truth about life there.
Park frequently claims in podcast appearances that North Koreans don’t have access to maps of the world and that they fail to learn basic math, such as “1 + 1 = 2.” Lankov points to images of elementary school textbooks that prove otherwise.
To underscore the dangers of collectivism, Park often claims that North Koreans don’t have a word equivalent to “I” and that they must resort to the first-person plural. “We [are not] allowed to say ‘I,’” she said in a 2021 podcast appearance. “We say, ‘We like water.’”
But Lankov disputed the notion that this particular syntax is anything more than a rhetorical quirk. “It’s just a normal part of speaking Korean in South Korea [as well], among the older generation at least,” Lankov said.
Similarly, Park shocked podcast host Pool when she maintained that North Koreans “don’t know the concept of love” aside from the adoration they’re allowed to feel for members of the Kim dynasty. (“The most villainous thing I’ve ever heard,” her host replied.)
Lankov and other Korea experts scoff. “Of course they have words for love,” said Song, the University of Melbourne professor.
Park has also repeatedly alleged that North Koreans can be executed and their families punished for the crime of failing to clean their framed household portraits of leaders such as Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il.
“So if the picture is dusty, you get executed?” an astonished Rogan asked her in 2021.
“Yeah,” Park said.
Lankov argues that this is a convoluted distortion of one of the real-life grotesqueries of North Korean life. Citizens there are required to undergo routine “self-criticism” sessions, in which they publicly confess to personal failings. Some, out of pressure to come up with something to say, end up falling back on an absurdly minor offense that will let them off with a minor punishment — such as inadequate maintenance of their shrine to the Kims. Park’s assertion that someone would be executed for having a dusty portrait of Kim Jong Il, Lankov said, would be the equivalent of telling North Koreans that Americans can be executed for a speeding ticket.
Few of Park’s podcast hosts have questioned her stories. But debunking her claims has become something of a hobby for left-wing internet figures, such as Twitch star Hasan Piker. An image of Park from her Rogan interview became a popular meme in May, used by posters to signal to readers that they’re exaggerating or telling a tall tale.
“The joke is that she’ll say anything that’s just wildly outlandish, and Joe will just accept it as true,” said Don Caldwell, editor of the site Know Your Meme.
Other high-profile accounts of life inside North Korea have turned out to be fabrications. In 2015, former Post reporter Blaine Harden conceded factual errors in “Escape from Camp 14,” his 2012 bestseller about defector Shin Dong-hyuk. Under pressure from other defectors who disputed his stories, Shin admitted that he had lied about several key aspects of his story, saying that he had originally found it “too painful” to give a full account of his life.
Scholars say North Korean defectors may feel pressure to serve up a dramatically compelling account of their previous lives. While South Korea provides some aid and training to the roughly 30,000 defectors in the country, they often find themselves ill-equipped to earn a living in a competitive capitalist economy. Defectors face higher-than-average unemployment rates; their suicide rates are said to be higher than the general population’s.
Some defectors in South Korea are paid for interviews, and there is a sense that the more attention-grabbing stories will earn more money. Meanwhile, North Korea’s isolation makes it difficult to fact-check even the most bizarre tales.
He escaped North Korea, then risked everything to go back for his mom
Park’s first memoir appeared in 2015 amid an “increasing number of narratives of escape from North Korea,” its Kirkus review noted. Hong, the UC Santa Cruz professor, sees a booming “industry” for such tales, “and that involves English-language bestsellers on Amazon, it involves TED Talks, it involves documentary films, it involves a speaking circuit.”
It would seem unnecessary to exaggerate the horrors of North Korea when the documented truth is terrible enough. A 2014 United Nations report found widespread government abuses, including rape, murder and forced abortions. In 2022, a State Department report on North Korea listed forced sterilization, executions and “arbitrary” detentions as part of a long array of “significant human rights issues” in the country.
Park’s critics fear that the questionable veracity of her claims about North Korea will overshadow genuine concerns about the dire state of human rights there. Song, the University of Melbourne professor, believes Park reflects back to her audiences what they want from her — whether it’s to confirm their deepest fears of authoritarianism or their darkest suspicions of liberalism.
“She’s a total mirror of the society she’s in,” Song said. “She can read this emotional radar in what people want to read from her.”

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