North Korean defector and author speaks at Roanoke College
Human Rights activist and TED speaker Yeonmi Park spoke to a large audience in the Wortmann Ballroom on March 20. Broadcast crews were lined up as Park told the audience of community members about life growing up in North Korea, her family’s daring escape across a frozen river to China and what her life has been like since.
Park opened her talk by sharing that Roanoke was one of the first places she visited after escaping North Korea and coming to America for Bible study. She met a friend, Esther, in Tyler, Texas, and Esther was from Roanoke.
“She brought me here to have my first American Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Park said. “I still remember she took me to the Roanoke Star and the museum. It was my first time in an American home.” Park talked about the “palace” her friend lived in, saying that although she now knows it was a modest home, she had not yet seen one with a garage or staircase.
“That day, I was praying deep in my heart that, if I am very, very lucky, I might be able to come back to this country,” Park said. “It was reaching for the stars, and here I am as an American now. I became an American last year, living as a free person. Anything is possible in life.”
Park said she is one of only 209 North Koreans who have made it to the United States.
At times, Park’s voice trembled as she detailed the daily atrocities of living in North Korea: no electricity; regularly seeing bodies in the streets; eating rats, insects and more. She and her mother crossed a frozen river to escape to China, where her mother was raped and sold into human trafficking for $65. Park, because of her youth, was more valuable to the Chinese human traffickers.
At age 13, Park chose to sacrifice herself to a human trafficker who wanted to keep her as his mistress. Her goal was to save her family. Her mother was returned from the farmer who had bought her, and her ill father was brought from North Korea, but he died in China.
When Park enrolled at Columbia University, she said, she thought she would get the best education. As an American, she said, she still has concerns about personal freedoms.
“I remember the first day at orientation, my professor asked us to stay angry, stay outraged, because America is an inherently evil system,” she recalled. “All the evil that is happening in the world is because of greedy capitalism and because of white men. Did I somehow go back to North Korea? This is the same thing I was learning in North Korea. My schoolteachers told us that all the problems we had in the world, the only solutions we had in the world was a communist revolution. My professors at Columbia University were repeating the exact same thing to me.”
“I became an American last year, living as a free person. Anything is possible in life.”
Yeonmi Park, who was born in North Korea and escaped at age 13
Park detailed some of the many infractions that can get a North Korean citizen executed or sent to a concentration camp, such as finding dust on a Kim Jong Il portrait or watching a foreign film.
Alex Choi '25 and Aidan Spradlin '25 both were introduced to Park’s story through the Joe Rogan podcast.
“I'm South Korean myself, so I was really interested in the topic of North Korean aggression,” Choi said. “I used to research that a lot, and my parents talked to me about it. I wanted to hear different perspectives because I really value people's stories. And obviously what Miss Park went through is something that no one else, or only 209 people, can relate to. So I thought it was special to have her here.”
Spradlin said he’s currently taking a class about Asian politics, and has been learning about North Korea, China and other Asian states.
“To hear her story and everything that she went through is truly inspiring,” he said. “To hear how those government policies and what they enforce affects people in their everyday life is just terrible. They have no respect for human rights, as Ms. Park said.”
Park’s speech was sponsored by Roanoke College’s Center for Economic Freedom and the David L. Guy Lecture Series, as well as by Young America’s Foundation.
Many of Park’s talks, which can be found on YouTube, have gone viral with up to 350 million views. CSPAN recorded the event on campus for their Book TV coverage (to be aired in the future). Her talk at Roanoke College was streamed by co-sponsor Young America’s Foundation and can be seen here.
Yeonmi Park visit to Roanoke College
Yeonmi Park with program sponsor David Guy '75
Yeonmi Park poses for a photo with a student during the book signing after her talk.
Yeonmi Park signs a book for Zoey Nichols
Alice Kassens, director of the Center for Economic Freedome, introduces Yeonmi Park at the David Guy Lecture Series.
Kathy Wolfe, vice president and dean of the college, welcomes the audience at the Yeonmi Park event.