A North Korean defector who fled the country aged 13 has described the horror of seeing bodies in the streets and eating insects to survive because of mass starvation in the secretive state.
Yeonmi Park said cold, darkness and starvation were part of everyday life in the pariah kingdom where she grew up and blamed the regime’s nuclear ambitions for wrecking the country’s economy.
Now 26, she told the New York Post there were ‘no friends, only comrades’ in North Korea and that feelings of affection were reserved for the ruling Kim dynasty, which has ruled the one-party dictatorship for more than 70 years.
North Korea defector Yeonmi Park (pictured) has spoken of the horrors of eating insects and seeing bodies in the streets when she grew up in the secretive country
Park, pictured as a girl in North Korea, blamed the ruling Kim dynasty and its spending on nuclear missile tests for wrecking the country’s economy
The UN warned last year that more than 10million people were facing ‘severe shortages’ in North Korea, and the economy has been further damaged by coronavirus restrictions – although the country claims to have no cases.
‘You’d see so many people just dying. It was something normal for us to see the dead bodies on the street,’ Park said.
‘I have visited slums in Mumbai, I have visited slums in other countries, but nothing is like North Korea because North Korean starvation, it’s a systematic starvation by a country that chose to starve us.’
Park’s grandmother and uncle both died of malnutrition and as a child she was forced to eat insects to survive, she said.
‘If they would spend just 20 per cent of what they spent on making nuclear weapons, nobody would have to die in North Korea from hunger but the regime chose to make us hungry,’ she said.
She also described how school children were taught to revere the Kim family as god-like leaders with supernatural powers.
When Park was a child, Kim Jong-il was still the country’s supreme leader, before he died in 2011 and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-un.
Park said there was ‘no concept of friends’ in schools where pupils were forced to turn against each other in so-called ‘criticism sessions’.
After fleeing North Korea and crossing the frozen Yalu River into China, Park (pictured) and her mother were trafficked and raped before escaping again to Mongolia
Kim Jong-un (pictured) succeeded his father Kim Jong-il as supreme leader of North Korea after the elder Kim’s death in 2011
Very few people cross the DMZ into South Korea, but some defectors such as Park and her mother escape the hermit kingdom through China.
Then aged 13, Park says she was ‘sold’ to traffickers for $260 and both she and her mother were raped by their captors.
Park previously spoke of gangs who specialise in the trafficking of North Koreans in China, which has a shortage of women as a result of its one child policy.
Some women worked as prostitutes so they could make money to send home, Park said, while brothels in Shanghai and Beijing allegedly drugged them to stop them leaving.
After nearly two years with their captors, Park and her mother risked their lives to escape to Mongolia by crossing the frozen Gobi Desert.
Park then moved to Seoul and later New York City and Chicago, but says that some of her relatives in North Korea have disappeared.
She fears her relatives could have been executed or sent to prison camps in North Korea.
Political prisoners face ‘torture, sexual violence, forced labour and other inhuman treatment’, according to Human Rights Watch.
Park blamed military spending on missile tests (pictured, a test-fire of a rocket launcher in March this year) for the economic crisis in North Korea
They are also subjected to ‘back-breaking forced labour in dangerous conditions, sometimes in winter weather, without proper clothing,’ the group says.
North Koreans can be sent to prison camps for trying to defect to the South or for working or living in China.
The defectors are a source of tension between the two Korean states and are denounced as ‘human scum’ by official media in the North.
Some defectors have been known to send propaganda leaflets across the DMZ, enraging the North which has threatened military retaliation.
In June, the North blew up a liaison office meant to foster better ties between the two countries after voicing anger about the defectors’ activities.
Kim Jong-un has ramped up North Korean measures against the coronavirus despite the regime’s claims that no cases have been found.
Last month, the town of Kaesong was put in lockdown after a defector slipped back into the town with what state media described as virus symptoms.
But the lockdown was lifted after three weeks and it was never revealed whether the person had tested positive.