Yeonmi Park brings Kresge auditorium to tears as the first Ubben Lecture speaker of the year


Human rights activist Yeonmi Park addressed students, faculty, staff and Greencastle community members in Kresge Auditorium last night. ZACH TAYLOR / THE DEPAUW

A day after her 22nd birthday and six days after the release of her book, “In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom” North Korean defector and human rights activist Yeonmi Park spoke at DePauw University.

On Oct. 5, Park came to DePauw as the first speaker of Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lectureship series for the 2015-2016 school year. She is the first speaker from Asia and is the youngest Ubben lecture in the series’s history.

“To find people that have life story that’s compelling and in this case someone who is the youngest person we’ve had since the series started 30 years ago, that’s exciting to me,” said Ken Owen, the executive director of media relations.

Owen coordinates the Ubben lectures every year and tries to bring a diverse group of speakers to DePauw.

“I think it will give us insights on what it is to live, what it is to be free, what it is to be happy, and what it is to have a bad day,” said Owen of Park’s speech.

Park escaped from North Korea and was sold into human trafficking with her mother when she was 13 years old. Park watched her mother be raped by their captors to save her, buried her father without being allowed time to mourn and walked across the Gobi desert to freedom. She made it to South Korea and decided to tell her story.

“My mom was being sold for 65 dollars and I thought what can I do with that money in this country,” said Park in an interview with The DePauw, “In my purse I have that money now,” she said.

When talking about her writing process Park said, “If I wanted to be completely free, then I have to tell the truth” Park suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, and for a long time had difficulty correctly organizing the series of event that lead to her freedom.

“To be free physically is easy, you cross the desert or the river,” said Park, “To be free emotionally is the hard part.”

 With the release of her book she hopes to shed light on the darkness that surrounds North Korea. “It’s been a coping and painful process” said Park about writing her book.

“North Korea is a joke to the West” said Park. “Not many people know the reality, these people are forgotten in the West."

“There are no human words to describe what is going on in that country” said Park during her speech. “I grew up seeing dead bodies on the street. I never knew what human dignity was.”

In sharing her journey she was ashamed to tell her story, and worried that people would see her differently. She says that she was met with the opposite response.

“They have compassion and they have sympathy and I am very grateful for that” said Park.

Park’s speech on Monday night titled, “What it means to be Free”, was broadcast live via webcast for free. Her speech focused on human trafficking as a whole by using examples from her own experiences.

“Her story engages with a couple of concerns that are really important to me,” Brett O’Bannon, political science professor and director of the conflict studies program, “One is the global shame that is human trafficking and the other is the North Korean dimension of the story” said O’Bannon.

“She made me want to do more,” said first year Kiara Goodwine, “I had no idea how bad human rights were in North Korea.”

At the end of her speech the audience gave her a standing ovation and sang her happy birthday, bringing her and many in the audience to tears.

The next places on Park’s journey are New York City, Canada, London, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Thailand and Japan for her global book tour. DePauw was her first time speaking at a university.

Park hopes to one day go to college in the U.S. and “be a normal student, go to cafes talk about boys,” said Park. She hopes to one day go back to her country and continue to raise her voice.

“I’ll fight until I die,” said Park.