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‘In Order to Live’ book review: Harrowing, heartbreaking, & hopeful

Keyur Basnet

Keyur Basnet

‘In Order to Live’ book review: Harrowing, heartbreaking, & hopeful

Written when Yeonmi Park was 18 years old, ‘In Order to Live’ narrates the horrors the North Korean defector and activist faced while living under the Kim dictatorship

This review does not have a rating because how do you rate a true story that has so much mental and physical anguish, injustices, cruelties, and pain? By choosing to tell the story of her escape from North Korea, Yeonmi Park has done a brave thing. It has endangered her life, and the lives of her family back home, she says in the book. But writing the book wasn’t just for catharsis. It’s also to tell the world about North Korea and the brutal ways in which the one-party totalitarian dictatorship keeps its people under control.

Park was born in the North Korean city of Hyesan, close to the Chinese border. Her family depended on black market trading to survive the North Korean famine in the 1990s. As a child, her mother told her she shouldn’t speak out loud as mice and rats could hear her thoughts, and thus the Great Leader would come to know things and punish her. At school, all she knew of the outside world was that Americans were evil. Unable to bear the horrors of the Kim dictatorship, she and her mother fled to China when Park was just 13 years old.

Written when she was 18 years old, ‘In Order to Live’ narrates the horrors Park and her family faced while living in North Korea. The people there, she says, are so brainwashed by political propaganda that they don’t know any better—they think the atrocities they have to deal with are part and parcel of daily life. Park also writes about the years when she was trafficked around northern China and had to deal with gangsters running prostitution rackets. They had to take an indirect route, through the freezing Gobi Desert in Mongolia, to get to South Korea.

Park’s story is heartbreaking. There were many instances when I welled up and had to put the book away. It’s unimaginable that someone has had to go through so much. I found myself wishing some really bad things for the North Korean dictators. When Park went on TV to talk about life in North Korea, the Kim government tried to discredit her—calling her a liar and making public recordings of those who knew her saying bad things about her. Park knew writing the book would be risky—she was worried about her relatives back home in Hyesan—but she felt in her heart that what was happening back in North Korea was unacceptable and the world needed to know to perhaps be able to stop it someday.

The writing is a tad bit pretentious at times, with lines like ‘I inhaled books like other people breathe air’ and such. But don’t let that stop you from reading ‘In Order to Live’ as it’s an inspiring story of the power of hope and resilience in the darkest of times.

Non-fiction

In Order to Live

Yeonmi Park

Published: 2015

Publisher: Penguin Random House UK

Pages: 272, Paperback

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