The celebrity defector has found fans in the likes of Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson, but why can’t she get her story straight?
Yeonmi Park: In North Korea, every room has to have a portrait of the Kims. The inspector comes out of nowhere in the middle of the night and touches the portraits. If they see any dust... you can get executed.
Joe Rogan: [shakes head] Wow.
This isn’t a meme, but a real (slightly abridged) exchange taken from a 2021 episode of the Joe Rogan Podcast. You might have seen it pop up on your social media feeds lately, alongside clips of the North Korean defector talking to Joe Rogan about Chinese organ harvesting, or telling right-wing hack Jordan Peterson about eating “tons of grasshoppers” to survive life in the dictatorship. You’ve probably also seen the memes being shared in response to her unbelievable stories. Yeonmi is a CIA-funded propagandist, they claim, or Yeonmi is scamming wide-eyed westerners with tales from beyond the DPRK’s iron curtain for financial gain. Are they wrong?
Born in North Korea, Yeonmi Park fled with her family to China in 2007, at the age of 13, and settled in South Korea in 2009. Five years later, she would move to the United States to work as a human rights activist, spreading the story of her defection at events such as the 2014 One Young World summit in Dublin.
The problem is, Yeonmi’s tall tales have varied over the years, littered with factual inaccuracies and... poetic licence. How could this happen? It’s a question on many people’s lips as she surges back into the spotlight following the publication of her most recent book, While Time Remains: A North Korean Defector's Search for Freedom in America. Wouldn’t she remember whether her father escaped with the rest of the family, or was left behind to “minimise the risks”? And how did she forget about the concept of ice cream?
Below, we dive into some of Yeonmi Park’s wildest stories of life in North Korea, and why defectors are incentivised to embellish their suffering under the rule of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.
In Turkey, you pay for ice cream then the ice cream man pretends he's giving it and takes it back and you starve pic.twitter.com/EaJaRPF5Et— xezal 🧙♂️ (@pyroghetti) May 13, 2023
WHY LIE ABOUT LIFE IN NORTH KOREA?
Undeniably, there are many facts of life in North Korea that would be shocking to people on the outside, from the country’s travel restrictions, to its human rights abuses, to its dependence on a growing nuclear arsenal (not to mention the government’s totalitarian approach to fashion and hatred of K-pop). It’s worth noting, though, that there’s also a significant financial incentive to share increasingly shocking stories filled with unsavoury details.
Back in 2017, the South Korean government quadrupled the reward it pays North Korean defectors for “useful information” on the regime, to just under £700,000. In both South Korea and the US, meanwhile, bestselling memoirs and sensational speaking engagements help convert trauma into cash – and they might be a good way to spread information about life in North Korea, if they weren’t undermined by factual inaccuracies.
WHAT HAS YEONMI PARK LIED ABOUT?
It’s convenient that Yeonmi mostly addresses already-outraged crowds of Americans and credulous “public intellectuals” like Peterson, because she often gives the impression that she’s making stories up on the fly, responding to questions with a remarkable flair for “yes, and...” improv.
This would explain some of the contradictions in her narration of events in North Korea. For example, her frequently-recited story about the execution of her best friend’s mother for watching forbidden media. In some stories, she reports that the media was a South Korean DVD, and the act took place in a stadium. Other times, though, it’s changed to a James Bond film or a nameless Hollywood blockbuster, and the woman was killed in the street. Either way, it’s an incredibly dark tale, but it’s also surprising that she’d forget the details of such a formative event. Plus, experts have expressed doubt that such an extreme punishment fits the crime, even in North Korea.
In other appearances, Yeonmi’s stories are simply improbable. See: her claim on the Joe Rogan Podcast that North Korea only has one train, which runs once a month, and when it breaks down the passengers have to get out and (somehow, despite train carriages typically weighing more than 15 tonnes) push it where they want to go. Or the claim that all of North Korea’s plants mysteriously turn poisonous in springtime, and the population is left to feed deadly mud to their children.
Many of Yeonmi’s more dubious claims have even been shot down by fellow defectors, while commentators on the region have criticised her for her tendency to “muddle her message with this nakedly partisan punditry”.
AND WHAT’S THAT ABOUT ICE CREAM?
One post that has particularly captured the internet’s imagination (read: sparked numerous memes) over the last week is on the tamer end of the spectrum. Under a picture of her posing outside a Jeni’s Ice Creams shop, Yeonmi writes: “When I was in North Korea, there was no such a concept as ‘dessert’. Now I cannot imagine a world without these goodies.”
Admittedly, I cannot imagine a world without goodies, either. However, it seems unlikely that Yeonmi never actually stumbled across an ice cream during her time in North Korea, since they did actually exist – as evidenced in travel blogs and images from the early 2000s. In 2022, Kim Jong Un himself even took “special measures” to speed up the construction of a new ice cream factory.
IS IT REALLY PROPAGANDA, OR IS YEONMI JUST REALLY FORGETFUL?
That’s the question... According to Yeonmi herself, many of her mistakes were the result of a language barrier when she was still learning English. In a response to a 2014 article in the Diplomat, she added: “I apologise that there have been times when my childhood memories were not perfect,” saying that she was cross-checking details with her mum as she authored her first book.
Naturally, these disclaimers aren’t good enough for many internet sceptics, who point to the West’s long tradition of using defectors as propaganda mouthpieces (a tactic that’s been employed in North Korea, as well). Many have suggested that Yeonmi is one such psy-op, as well as pointing out ties to shady organisations like the Atlas Network. Others have even speculated that her outrageous claims are being used by DPRK sympathisers to undermine other defectors’ accounts of their suffering.
YEONMI PARK’S RIGHT-WING TIES
In case you haven’t noticed, Yeonmi Park has found a significant audience with right-wing figures and more conservative-leaning pundits. This might not be surprising – she presents a perfect opportunity to *own the commies* – but their inane “culture wars” drivel does, unfortunately, seem to have rubbed off on Yeonmi herself.
Yes, Yeonmi is now “slamming cancel culture” at America’s Ivy League universities in articles for the Telegraph. In one interview, she complains that her lessons at Columbia demonised capitalism, taught her that maths is racist, and claimed “anything that was white was bad”, comparing the university to a North Korean classroom. Elsewhere, she decries the “woke tyranny” of Western culture, saying: “Even North Korea isn’t this crazy.” (Comparing the US to North Korea: based. Doing it because you don’t like what they’re teaching in schools, instead of the states’ shared love of incarceration and nuclear aggression: sadly, cringe.)
According to yet another Joe Rogan interview clip, this swing toward the right-wing was prompted by an incident during the George Floyd protests in 2020, when she was allegedly robbed by three Black woman, and stopped from calling the police by a crowd of 20 white bystanders. Apparently, that was the catalyst for her “speaking out” and becoming a self-proclaimed “enemy of the woke” – not necessarily the most objective viewpoint for gathering useful intel.
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