NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Human rights activist and North Korean defector, Yeonmi Park shared a message of hope and willingness to fight about her journey to freedom at Christopher Newport University during the Global Status of Women and Girls Conference.
Park is 24 years old and is a student at Columbia University. However, when she was 13 years old, she was in a life-or-death situation - escaping North Korea. She was dying of starvation and her sister had already made the journey. She and her mom, who was in her 40s, decided they would try to escape too.
"I knew that I would die if I get caught or anything but one day at a time," said Park.
They would escape by crossing the border to China. They fled on March 30, 2007 with the help of human traffickers, who had an ulterior motive. Upon reaching China, Park and her mom learned why they got help escaping.
"I was sold for less than $300. I was expensive compared to my mom because I was a virgin and young. I think in that moment, I stopped being a child and believing in humanity," said Park during her speech. She said she was raped and separated from her mom.
For Park, the hardest part about sharing her story is the limitation of language.
"What happened in North Korea is indescribable. I cannot describe using our human words about what's happening there, but I do my best," said Park.
From China, Park escaped to South Korea through the Gobi Desert. She told a story about how the first time she heard the concept of freedom; it was about being able to wear whatever she wanted and being able to watch movies. She explained this resonated with her because in North Korea, they didn't have the freedom to choose what to wear. Guards would tell them what to wear, what their hairstyle could be and what songs to listen to.
"It was the coldest, darkest night. I felt like the universe abandoned us. That I was punished so hard that I couldn’t understand why I was born in North Korea. Why do I have to go through all this because of my birthplace? That was so unfair to me. Luckily, we didn't die in the desert," said Park about her journey through the desert.
However, she also had a story of hope.
"I thought I would never get the chance in North Korea or in that desert, but if we persevere and never give up, I believe that we will get a chance at some point. So keep fighting," she said.
Now, she's one of the most well-known voices for human rights and hopes to spread that message with others to help the people who are in North Korea, suffering like she was.
"There are 25 million like me. Living in that country without knowing what love is. What I want people to take out of my story or what's happening is that it can be stopped if we care enough," Park said.