Why a North Korean Defector Is Denouncing the Ivy League

Yeonmi Park’s shifting persona and her newfound fame on the MAGA right raise questions about the stories we buy, totalitarianism, and ‘post-truth’ America

Why a North Korean Defector Is Denouncing the Ivy League
Human rights activist Yeonmi Park rehearses backstage before a TED talk in Vancouver. (Lawrence Sumulong/Getty Images)

Yeonmi Park is tired of defending herself to journalists. “I wrote all this in the books. I explained a million times,” she told me near the end of our tense and, at times, surreal 45-minute conversation. “They refused to believe me.”

Park, 29, was once celebrated in the mainstream press. At a youth summit in Dublin in 2014, she gave a deeply emotional speech about her escape from North Korea that went viral, transforming her from a minor celebrity in South Korea, where she was living at the time, into one of the world’s most famous defectors. Outlets like The New York Times and The Daily Beast ran breathless articles, and Park quickly became a fixture in elite, mostly liberal circles. She attended the Met Gala. She opened for Hillary Clinton at the Women of the World conference. Marie Claire profiled her. Penguin gave her a $1.1 million book deal. She was admitted to Columbia University.

For four years, Park quietly pursued a degree in human rights studies, attending the university’s campus, a shaded neoclassical oasis in uptown Manhattan. But after graduating in 2020, she returned to the spotlight with a different kind of defection story. The liberal establishment, she claimed, was morally debased, an indoctrination machine that threatened to transform America into a North Korea-style nightmare, with a mix of safe spaces, gender ideology and diversity initiatives — all flashpoints of the American culture war that conservatives have railed against for years. Park’s horror stories of her time in Columbia’s liberal gulag won her audiences with podcast hosts like Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan, who have large — though not exclusively — conservative fan bases.

Park took things further in February, when she appeared on two of the most extreme programs in the MAGAsphere: Mike Lindell’s “Frank Clips” show and Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast. Months later, she signed on as a contributor with Turning Point USA, a large, well-funded youth organization known for hosting MAGA firebrands like Bannon and Tucker Carlson. In response, The Times and other prominent media outlets have now begun to highlight long-standing questions about her credibility.

Park has mostly decided to stonewall journalists like me, so I didn’t expect a response when I emailed an interview request in late June. An hour later, my phone rang. “I don’t see why I should talk to you,” she said. I started asking questions. I wanted to understand her transition from international human rights advocate to U.S. culture warrior — and why her specific brand of storytelling fits so perfectly into the right-wing ecosystem she’s embraced.

Questions about Park’s stories first emerged in 2014, soon after her viral speech at One Young World, the youth summit where prospective leaders from across the globe had gathered to network with high-powered politicians, business leaders and humanitarian influencers. The questions continued with the publication of her much-anticipated 2015 memoir, “In Order to Live.” Reviewers applauded her bravery and resilience but fretted about inconsistencies in some of her stories. In prior public appearances, for example, Park had claimed that a family friend was publicly executed in a stadium for watching a South Korean DVD. But in different versions of the same story, the execution happened on the street, and it was for watching a James Bond movie or “Titanic.” Other North Korean defectors found the story implausible: Watching foreign media, while illegal, is not a capital offense, and public executions are rare. Then the tale of this supposedly formative event disappeared entirely; it’s not included in her memoir.

Beyond the inconsistencies, however, Park had a simple, uncontroversial story to tell about the brutal privations of life under Kim Jong Un, a dictator so cartoonishly heinous that any American — left or right — could consider him an enemy. When she wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in 2018 excoriating Donald Trump for meeting with Kim, she was widely praised by liberals and foreign policy conservatives alike. No one mentioned the questions about her story. It was the first time in years she had received much attention at all.

Park’s second book, “While Time Remains: A North Korean Defector’s Search for Freedom in America,” was published in February and focuses on her time at Columbia. It describes the Ivy League university as “a place [that] saw no light at all, in the world or in people.” She underwent four years of indoctrination, she writes, that required students to “memorize and recite, not to grapple or understand.” Straying from official doctrine carried severe consequences.

“You get censored; you get penalized,” she told one reporter. “They tell you the things you cannot talk about.” And if you dare to speak out? “You don’t deserve any mercy,” she recently explained to Turning Point USA’s Young Women’s Leadership Conference. “You need to be annihilated.” The audience was intimately familiar with all of these claims: Turning Point USA, a major conservative youth organization, has spent the last 11 years accusing college campuses of policing speech, enforcing “woke” values and canceling anyone who stands in their way.

Peterson, a Canadian psychologist and self-help guru who has gained fame and notoriety for his own anti-woke crusades, penned the foreword to Park’s new book.

“She encountered the same ideology that had corrupted her homeland and doomed its inhabitants to a life in hell,” he wrote. The “totalitarianism lite” of the academy, he added, teaches a student to be “an oppressor-in-training — the inevitable and truly desired fate of every virtue-signaling Ivy League graduate.”

Peterson doesn’t call himself conservative, but he’s a defining voice on some of the cultural issues that animate the MAGAsphere. Park speaks a similar language. Throughout our conversation, unprompted, she recited arguments against trans people, proper pronouns, safe spaces and children taught to hate America.

Her message is very different today from what it was in 2014, but her fundamental appeal has not changed: She offers lurid and sensationalist secrets from a foreign and seemingly inaccessible enemy — one that is not merely wrongheaded or dangerous, but cartoonishly monstrous.

Here are a couple of the headlines Park received in the mainstream press before her MAGA turn:

“How ‘Titanic’ Helped This Brave Young Woman Escape North Korea’s Totalitarian State” — The Daily Beast.

“This Woman Escaped North Korea at 13 — These Are Her Lessons on Perseverance” — CNBC.

“[Yeonmi Park] had never seen a world map,” The New York Times wrote in 2018, three and a half years after questions about her story first emerged. “She nearly starved. After she underwent appendix surgery without anesthesia at age 13, Ms. Park recalled, she saw human bodies piled outside the hospital, their eyes eaten by rats.”

All of these articles were published after Mary Anne Jolley, an award-winning journalist, wrote a detailed article in The Diplomat that first called Park’s story into question.

Since Park’s anti-woke crusade began, meanwhile, her stories about North Korea have only grown more incredible. She told Peterson on his podcast that at the hospital she saw rats devouring whole bodies — eyeballs first — as hungry children stalked them.

“Then children catch this rat, and they eat, and they somehow die from — I don’t know what it is. Then rats eat the children back.” (“In Order to Live” describes bodies at a hospital but does not mention rats. The 2018 New York Times article adds the rats but does not mention children.) Struggling to hold back tears, she told a Turning Point USA audience recently that children in North Korea eat mud, adding, “If you eat mud, eventually you cannot go to the bathroom and you die.”

“North Korea has one train,” she told Rogan on his podcast. “And sometimes people have to push the train.”

“They have to push the train?” Rogan asked. His eyebrows arched.

“Yeah,” Park replied.

In our interview, I asked Park about that story. A train engine alone weighs between 100 and 200 tons — about the same as the Statue of Liberty or a blue whale. Could people really push it from one place to another?

“I’m so glad you asked that question,” Park replied.

She hadn’t seen anyone pushing the train, she patiently explained. Because so much of her pre-defection knowledge of her home country was propaganda, she said, she had to relearn the truth about North Korea after she left. Park also gets many of her stories from other defectors. She was certain the train story was true. She had pictures to prove it, she said, and would send them to me.

Park was born in 1993, less than a mile from the Chinese border in the province of Hyesan. Her father, a foundry laborer and member of the ruling Workers Party, supplemented his paltry salary by smuggling goods from China. This illicit income meant the Parks enjoyed a relatively high standard of living, but her family’s fortunes changed when her father was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to a reeducation camp. He returned in 2005, sick with the cancer that would eventually kill him. In 2007, Park and her mother escaped to China. Two years later, they slipped across the Chinese border and into the frozen Gobi Desert of Mongolia, where they surrendered to the authorities, who eventually sent them to South Korea. She was 15 years old.

Park’s reeducation began at a government-run facility that provides three months of mandatory classes for newly arrived North Korean defectors. These classes focus on vocational skills and information about South Korean society but also delve into the history of the fractured peninsula.

“Every day, the instructors challenged fundamental beliefs that had been drilled into our heads from birth,” Park recalled in her first book. “I was able to believe that Kim Jong Il lived in luxurious mansions while his people starved. But I could not accept that it was his father, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, and not the evil Yankee and South Korean invaders, who started the Korean War in 1950.”

Eventually, Park accepted this version of events, surrendering her doubts and embracing her adopted home. (Most historians consider that invasion the official start to the Korean War, but the tensions that led up to it were far from unilateral.) In 2012, three years after her arrival from Mongolia, Park was cast on a South Korean variety show called “Now on My Way to Meet You,” which focused on young “defector beauties” from North Korea. Shows about defectors are popular in South Korea; they can be light and funny, but often focus on the extreme and gruesome tales Park is now famous for sharing. One woman on the “Now on My Way” show claimed to have been imprisoned for 28 years, starting at the age of 13, on unspecified charges (asking about your charges, she said, carries a penalty of execution). Other defectors on the show told stories about eating noodles made from ground rice plant roots mixed with lye.

South Korea’s hostile relationship with North Korea, combined with national pride, sensationalism and the understandable fear of its nuclear-armed, totalitarian neighbor, have created a massive appetite for what Jay Song, a professor of Korean studies at Melbourne University, describes as “misery porn.” In her academic work, Song writes of a “savage-victim-savior” model in which a savage like Kim Jong Un commits atrocities against an innocent, helpless victim like Park who eventually escapes their bad situation thanks to an outside liberator (often white, usually Christian). To me, Song put it more bluntly: “They want to pity some helpless and innocent-looking refugees abused by a fat, ugly dictator.”

Misery porn, like any form of sensationalism, opens donor wallets and generates clicks. These stories don’t just sell inside South Korea; there’s a huge market for them in the U.S. as well. Park’s 2015 book was one of five defector memoirs released that year. Defectors like Shin Dong-hyuk, who escaped from a North Korean prison camp, and Joseph Kim, who survived protracted starvation and homelessness before eventually crossing into China, have given TED talks and scored lucrative book deals. Human rights researchers and journalists alike, meanwhile, are always hungry for stories from inside the Hermit Kingdom. Defectors, Song says, at times receive payment from academics, activists and even some journalists for interviews: between $30 and $300 per hour, “depending on the quality of their information.” The more closely the defector’s story fits the misery porn template, the more valuable the story.

Even small sums of money can make a big difference to defectors in South Korea; studies show they experience widespread discrimination, suffer higher rates of unemployment and are often stuck working menial jobs for low wages. Worse still, these defectors often arrive in debt to the smugglers who made their escape possible, and their inexperience with South Korean capitalism leaves them vulnerable to scams.

Stories like Park’s that perfectly fit the genre — attractive victim, monstrous crimes and appropriate gratitude — can result in million-dollar contracts and international fame. Many of these North Korean horror stories, however, fall apart under more careful scrutiny — not because the nation is a secret workers’ paradise, but because the people who propagate the stories have a political and financial interest in them, and don’t do the incredibly difficult work of checking all the facts.

“The trouble with North Korean defector testimony is that there’s no way to check whether or not it’s true,” Song says. “It’s often found unverifiable and not reliable. Even the U.N. stopped using defector accounts as evidence.”

On “Now on My Way to Meet You,” Park’s role was not originally as a victim but as a striking contrast to the other defectors on the show. The producers christened her “The Paris Hilton of North Korea” and showed happy photos of her family looking sleek and posh in clothing imported from Japan. One picture showed her mother with a Chanel handbag, though Park would later describe it as a cheap knockoff. Park appeared on the show for a little over a year.

The Paris Hilton character was popular in South Korea — enough so, Park writes, that she was frequently recognized on the street. But this was not the Park that made the leap to international fame. That came courtesy of her English tutoring program, Teach North Korean Refugees — a for-profit organization co-founded by Casey Lartigue, a well-connected American libertarian who has worked for organizations such as the CATO Institute and the Atlas Society. It was through this teaching program that Park eventually landed the invitation to speak at the One Young World conference.

“North Korea is an unimaginable country,” Park began as she stood on the stage of the 2014 conference. Ethereal in an intricate hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, she struggled to hold back tears as she described a nightmare world of oppression in North Korea and her family’s escape through China. By the end, many in the audience were visibly weeping. “When I was crossing the Gobi Desert, scared of dying, I thought nobody in this world cared,” she said. “But you have listened to my story. You have cared.”

Less than two months later, Jolley wrote her article in The Diplomat that pointed out glaring inconsistencies within Park’s story, sometimes between interviews conducted days apart. The posh teenager who had found her fellow characters’ stories of starvation hard to believe on her old reality show was now telling reporters about having to eat grass and dragonflies to stay alive. “When I was growing up in North Korea, I never saw anything about love stories between man and woman: no books, no songs, no press, no movies about love stories,” Park told One Young World. But earlier she’d recounted watching many Western movies as a child, including “Titanic,” “Cinderella” and “Snow White.” This worldliness was central to her former message: Exposure to South Korean and Western media among her “black market generation” would eventually erode the Kims’ iron grip and, perhaps, lead to the fall of the government and the eventual reunification of the peninsula.

The Diplomat printed Park’s response below Jolley’s article. In it, the young defector apologized for the confusion. She pinned her discrepancies on trauma, the language barrier and the unreliability of childhood memories. But there is another reason for the divergence in her stories, she has since said: a desire to hide the two years of sexual exploitation she suffered at the hands of human traffickers in China. “In South Korea, if I ever said that I was a sex slave for two years, from 13 to 15, no sane man would marry me,” she told me.

It’s a heartbreaking story, but it doesn’t explain her wildly different tales about life in North Korea. I asked her about these inconsistencies, and she offered an explanation: She chooses which part of her life to focus on based on what her audience wants and expects. “I wrote all this in the book, but my life does go upside down when my father gets arrested,” Park told me. While her dad was a smuggler, she lived a relatively privileged life. After his arrest, she says, she and her mom nearly starved. Different outlets wanted her to emphasize different parts of her life, and so she did. When she auditioned for “Now on My Way to Meet You,” the producers were captivated by the period of her life when her family was doing well. “We can highlight this character for you where you had a good life story, because everybody has such a dark story,” Park told me, paraphrasing the producers. “And we don’t want those. This is the entertainment show after all.”

She chose to focus on the Disney and Hollywood movies in a separate interview for Liberty in North Korea, an international nonprofit that helps defectors escape, because that was the part of her story they were interested in — so interested, in fact, that they helped her write the speech. “I wish every platform asked me to talk about a million things and gave me 10 hours to explain my story,” she told me, “but I don’t get invited for those things.”

Twist your mind enough and it begins to make sense. The Yeonmi Park of One Young World existed just before her defection, and never saw a movie. The Yeonmi Park from the Liberty in North Korea interview existed earlier — and did. The Park in “While Time Remains,” her second book, “never slept on a softer or warmer surface than a cold cement floor.” The Park of “In Order to Live” slept on a bed while visiting her father in Pyongyang. None of these things are lies, exactly. They are pieces that support what she sees as an overarching, essential truth, stripped bare of anything that might complicate it.

None of the versions of Yeonmi Park, however, saw anyone eating mud. That story came from a fellow defector on “Now on My Way to Meet You” — a story Park initially disbelieved. “Some of the times when people talked about eating literally dried grass, I would say [back then] that that’s lying,” she told me.

She no longer has such doubts. Park believes survivors, and she is disgusted that so many others do not.

Much of what she says about North Korea is based on the experiences of others — narratives that may already be exaggerated due to an avalanche of perverse incentives. “I have no idea what’s happening in other parts of North Korea. I had to read so many books on North Korea after I escaped,” she told me.

Park never saw people push a train to Pyongyang either, but she insists it isn’t as impossible as it sounds. Sometimes, she told me, there isn’t enough electricity for one engine to pull the train, so they must get a second engine. If the second engine isn’t enough, the people must help by pushing. There are pictures of people pushing trains, she insisted.

After we hung up, Park sent the train pictures. There are three of them, all showing passenger cars that look one strong breeze away from collapsing. One of the pictures doesn’t show any people. Another has tired passengers and a conductor visible inside a train through its windows. The third shows hundreds of people sitting on the roof of a train, packed together tightly. A few people attempt to climb into the cars from the ground. It is a grim scene, but no one is pushing. Park also sends an encyclopedia article from Namu Wiki, a Korean website that resembles Wikipedia, but with less fact-checking. The article contains only an unconfirmed report that North Koreans sometimes roll handmade carts along the train tracks.

I found this evidence-free “proof” more disconcerting than a refusal to comment or even an outright lie. Park must have thought these pictures and the article proved her point: Why else would she send them? She doesn’t believe she is a liar and, after our conversation, neither do I — not in the traditional sense, at least.

With every pivot and oversimplification, every story that strains credulity to breaking point, Park is showing us one of the true horrors of North Korean totalitarianism, something that has nothing to do with rats or trains or mud: a disturbingly fluid concept of truth. It’s looking at a picture that clearly shows one reality and genuinely seeing a different one.

In June, Park’s treatment of reality was on display as she spoke to a rapt and riled group of roughly 2,500 people at Turning Point USA’s Young Women’s Leadership Summit about the mud, the starvation and the people who threaten to bring those horrors to America: the woke left at American universities. “They were telling me that math … is not a real thing,” Park said of her teachers at Columbia, an institution with one of the most prestigious math programs in the world. “[That] it’s made up by white men to control minority people.” This claim is familiar to conservatives, who have repeatedly heard that the woke mob has declared math proficiency to be racist. It is true that some professors are concerned about disparate racial outcomes within the field of math, but they seek to end institutional racism within math departments, not the study of math itself. Columbia’s purportedly anti-math stance, Park claimed, was virtually the same lesson she had learned in math class in North Korea. Last February, she put it more bluntly on Megyn Kelly’s podcast: North Korean and American students are now “getting the exact same education.”

Park’s book also touched upon one of the conservative movement’s chief obsessions: gender issues. When she told a professor she believes there are biological differences between men and women, she writes, her professor dismissed her claim by saying Park had been “brainwashed.” When a classmate requested she refer to them with they/them pronouns, Park longed to “tell this fragile soul about life in North Korea versus life in America,” but says she refrained because she could see real pain in the nonbinary person’s eyes. She understood that the university had “brainwashed” this person into believing they were oppressed. The idea that trans people transition so they can claim status as an oppressed minority is a common conservative talking point.

Park’s university horror stories about the left go beyond the university. In 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests, Park made headlines when she claimed three Black women had robbed her near her Chicago home. When she begged passersby to stop the thieves, she claimed, they surrounded her, called her racist and prevented her from calling the police — a tale of racially charged violence that validated conservative fears of riots and lawlessness as a result of the protests. “They’re not going to prosecute those girls,” Park said on Rogan’s podcast a year later, referring to the thieves. But security footage shows that only two people — a man and a woman — robbed her, and the police investigated the incident. They never found the man, but Park picked the woman out of a lineup, and she was sentenced to prison before Park’s appearance on the podcast.

It’s perhaps this ability to treat facts as malleable that has allowed Park to find like-minded allies on the MAGA right. Hours after Park regaled the audience about her four years at an Ivy League reeducation camp, Lauren Boerbert, the controversial Republican congresswoman from Colorado, took the stage and railed against Target and the so-called “trans agenda,” criticizing the giant retailer for what she described as its “tuck-friendly swimsuits for tots.” A Target spokesperson was quick to point out that no such swimsuits exist, either in stores or online; Target only sells trans-friendly attire in adult sizes. But the right-wing pundit Candace Owens made the same claim at the summit, and Turning Point USA’s Benny Johnson went even further, showing a video of himself trashing a Target pride display. The audience cheered. To them, it did not seem to matter whether this story was factually accurate. The wider point felt true.

When you believe that your political enemies are an existential threat, the truth becomes whatever it needs to be to defeat them. Donald Trump won the election. Books with gay characters are pornography. Liberals are totalitarian communists, wokeism is directly analogous to the Maoist cultural revolution, and if we continue embracing progressive policies, America will end up like Park’s nightmare version of North Korea, rats and all.

As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote after World War II: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”

Park escaped a totalitarian regime that operates on fear, paranoia and privation, and such regimes leave scars on those who escape. Some defectors bear the marks of torture. Some struggle with mental illness. Others retain scraps of the mentality that bound them to a totalitarian society. “They’re from North Korea. The truth doesn’t matter there,” Song, the Melbourne University academic, told me. “And it’s sort of embedded in their mentality wherever they go. It’s for their survival.”

Perhaps ironically, Park captures this sentiment best in her own words. At the end of “While Time Remains,” she delivers a stark warning to her readers. “When a people become untethered from history, when they become unshackled from reality, when they lose the ability to understand cause and effect,” she wrote, “they become ripe for exploitation from those who hold real power.”

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