In 2022 I had the opportunity to attend a two-day conference in Colorado hosted by the Objective Standard Institute.
While there were many powerful speakers, the one whose story captivated me the most was that of Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector who in 2007 managed to escape her totalitarian country at age 13 after her father was sentenced to a labor camp. (His “crime”? He was trading sugar, salt, and other spices against the law.)
After making her way to China, Park was sold into slavery but was able to escape again, this time to Mongolia. She eventually made her way to South Korea, and then—in 2014—the United States.
Hearing Park’s trials almost brought me to tears. What was amazing was how positive her outlook on life was after enduring such hardships, personal loss, and deprivations.
“I escaped for a bowl of rice,” Park told the audience.
‘Untethered from History, Unshackled from Reality’
The human rights violations in North Korea are well known. The communist country has notoriously used starvation as a weapon to subjugate its people for decades and maintain an iron grip on power. More than a decade ago, the US Census cited reports estimating as many as 3 million people had died of famine in the country during the 1990s.
Kim Jong-un, who in 2011 succeeded his father as Supreme Leader of North Korea and became head of the Workers' Party of Korea in 2012, has used similar methods in the country of some 26 million people, and to similar results. Recent reports indicate that food security in North Korea is “at its worst since the 1990s famine.”
Hearing about famine and human rights violations in the abstract, however, is different than hearing about Park’s experience, which was not only hellish but bizarre. In her 2016 book In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom, the beautiful young author describes the state propaganda she was subjected to as a child.
“In school, we sang a song about Kim Jong Il and how he worked so hard to give our laborers on-the-spot instruction as he traveled around the country, sleeping in his car and eating only small meals of rice balls,” she wrote. “‘Please, please, Dear Leader, take a good rest for us!’ we sang through our tears. ‘We are all crying for you.’”
Park would eventually come to know everything she was taught in school about equity, communism, and North Korea’s “Dear Leader” was a lie. Living in America has also given her a new appreciation of the virtues of freedom and capitalism.
“Only in Capitalism, is my story possible,” Park recently tweeted. “America is truly a land of opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard and persevere. I came out of North Korea not speaking a word of English, penniless, and here I am an author of two bestselling books…”
Park was referring to her newest book, While Time Remains: A North Korean Defector's Search for Freedom in America, which includes a foreword from popular author Jordan B. Peterson. The book, which surged to #1 on Amazon in the political freedom section, cautions Americans to not take their freedom for granted, and urges them to learn from history.
“When a people become untethered from history, when they become unshackled from reality, when they lose the ability to understand cause and effect, they become ripe for exploitation from those who hold real power,” the North Korean defector writes.
‘Blind to the Prosperity Around Us’
Park’s book could not be better timed. Though capitalism has ushered in unprecedented human prosperity, it’s a reality many Americans are blind to, particularly younger Americans.
“I see people talking freely, working on their MacBooks, ordering food they get in an instant, seeing cars go by outside, and it dawned on me,” Alyssa Ahlgren wrote in a viral 2019 article titled “My Generation Is Blind to the Prosperity Around Us.”
“We live in the most privileged time in the most prosperous nation and we’ve become completely blind to it. Vehicles, food, technology, freedom to associate with whom we choose…These things are so ingrained in our American way of life we don’t give them a second thought. We are so well off here in the United States that our poverty line begins 31 times above the global average.”
If you believe Ahlgren was exaggerating, consider the recent observations from Washington Post technology writer Taylor Lorenz.
“People are like ‘why are kids so depressed it must be their PHONES!’ But never mention the fact that we’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape during an ongoing deadly pandemic w record wealth inequality, 0 social safety net/job security, as climate change cooks the world … u have to be delusional to look at life in our country rn and have any amt of hope or optimism.”
It bears noting that Lorenz, unlike Park, was born into capitalist privilege. She was raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, attended a prestigious (and expensive) Swiss boarding school, and received a political science degree from Hobart and William Smith Colleges (tuition: $61,000). Before joining Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post, she enjoyed stints at the most prestigious publications in media, including The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and Business Insider.
Despite this privilege and success, Lorenz views herself as oppressed. The sad truth is that she probably truly believes she lives in a “capitalist hellscape.” Like so many, she seems blind to the virtues of capitalism, and all the luxuries and comforts she’s grown accustomed to.
Yeonmi Park is not blind to these realities. She’s seen hell up close.
If Taylor Lorenz truly wants to understand what hell looks like, she should buy a copy of Park’s new bestselling book. It will likely offer her some much-needed perspective.