This woman escaped North Korea at 13 — these are her lessons on perseverance

This woman escaped North Korea when she was 13 — here's what the experience taught her about perseverance
This woman escaped North Korea when she was 13 — here's what the experience taught her about perseverance

Yeonmi Park is reluctant to describe herself as courageous, but her harrowing life story suggests exactly that.

Park, 24, defected from North Korea with her mother at the age of 13 after the dictatorship's oppressive government imprisoned her father and left her family fearing for their lives. She detailed her harrowing journey at the One Young World summit in Dublin in a 2014 speech that went viral, amassing nearly 4 million views on YouTube, and she wrote a memoir, "In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom," published in 2015.

Though most Americans will never have to face a fraction of what Park has survived, everyone can use the lessons she learned from the experience.

Here, she shares them with CNBC Make It.

A brutal journey

Park was only 9 years old in 2002, when her father was arrested after being caught illegally smuggling metals on the black market and was sent to a North Korean labor camp. At times her mother was also taken away by the government to be interrogated, so Park says she and her sister, Eunmi, had to "grow [up] very fast" and become adaptable.

For instance, in North Korea in the '90s, famine killed millions of people: "I had to look for food all the time," she says. She often resorted to eating bugs and plants. "I had to catch dragonflies, grasshoppers, and that was the only source of protein for me," she recalls.

Park also had to be careful about how she presented herself and what she said out loud in a country where citizens can be imprisoned for criticizing the government. Park says she "saw people getting killed for saying the wrong things" when she was growing up.

"The first thing my mom taught me was not to even whisper because the birds and mice could hear me, and if I ever let other people know, or the regime know, what I was thinking, that was going to get me killed," Park tells CNBC Make It. "So the things I had to do was really not ever thinking critically or speaking up."

Yeonmi Park as a child in North Korea.
Courtesy of Yeonmi Park

Eventually Eunmi escaped the country and in 2007, Park and her mother followed. They found brokers to help them get across the frozen Yalu River to China, but that journey bore its own horrors — the two were raped and sold into servitude by human traffickers before escaping after two years to Mongolia in a days-long trek that took them through the Gobi Desert.

In 2009, Park and her mother reached safety in South Korea and were granted South Korean citizenship as refugees of North Korea. They were later reunited with Eunmi. Though Park's father was able to escape to China, he died of cancer there.

Moving past hardship to find success

So what did Park learn that others can use?

First, perseverance.

"I really had loving parents, and my father was the example of perseverance ... he never gave up, and he taught me it's so easy to give up, but to fight is harder. And he already taught me how to choose the harder things than easier things," she says.

"I realized that I had to fight for a dignity of freedom that [every] human being deserves," she adds.

Second, the power of hope.

"I had to be very unrealistic about my situation," she says. "If I was so realistic I would never have made it this far. So, you just sometimes have to be hopeful for no reason."

Finally, Park says the best advice she has ever received came from activist and the president of the Human Rights Foundation Thor Halvorssen: "You have everything you need to be grateful and to be loving and to be just happy within yourself," he told her. "You do not need anything."

"I think the things that I am most grateful for was that I was born in North Korea and I escaped safely," she says, explaining that it allows her to better appreciate everything she has now, to be optimistic about the future, and ultimately to be happy.

Today, Park is a human rights activist who lives in Chicago with her American husband, Ezekiel, and their infant son. Park, who is also working toward a degree in economics at Columbia University, is now on the board of directors at the Human Rights Foundation and she works to raise awareness of the plight of people living under North Korea's oppressive regime.

"I do want to let people know that there are people like myself [who] still exist. And they are waiting for us to help them out," Park tells CNBC Make It, referring to people who are suffering in North Korea and trying to escape the current regime under dictator Kim Jong Un. Park looks to highlight the ongoing brutal conditions in North Korea by telling her own story: "I was a slave when I was 13. I was trafficked. I had to be raped and these things [are] still happening," she says.

And, looking forward, she's hopeful that human rights conditions will improve in North Korea someday as people like herself spread awareness of the oppressive regime and regular citizens begin to get more access to the outside world through the internet. (She's less convinced that the recent diplomatic talks between the U.S. and Kim Jong Un's regime will yield substantial human rights progress.)

In fact, despite everything that Park endured to escape North Korea, she says she would still like to go home some day. "I do want to go home. That's my dream," she says. "North Korea is still my home."

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