By Michael Greig Thomas
GS student Yeonmi Park was born in Hyesan, a hub of river transportation in the northern Ryanggang, North Korea. Growing up under the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Park left school at nine years old to work on a local farm. At 13, she fled with her mother across the frozen Yalu River into China, where they were held captive by traffickers for two years before escaping to South Korea by way of the Gobi desert.
Park studied at Dongguk University in Seoul before moving to New York in 2014 to complete her memoir while pursuing a growing role in advocacy for North Korea defectors. Park began auditing classes at Barnard College, and the College’s president, Debora Spar, recommended Park apply to the School of General Studies. While the transition to Columbia University was a difficult one, she is grateful for the support GS has provided.
“GS understands the needs of nontraditional students. It’s amazing how they provide for us—with the support of the community and our academic advisors, and the opportunity to take classes with fellow undergraduate and graduate students at Columbia,” Park said.
As an economics major, Park enrolled in Professor Sunil Gulati’s Principles of Economics in her first semester at GS. She concedes her greatest challenge has been math and economics, conceptualizing new economic models while “coming from a centralized economy, with no free market and no private banks”.
After graduating from GS, she foresees pursuing a master’s and a PhD. Her hope is to continue not only as an academic, advocate, and activist, but as a socially conscious entrepreneur—implementing solutions to social and cultural issues.
“There are so many people I need to reach out to. When we view people through the media, obstructed by language barriers, there is a lack of human interest. There is always human crisis. These people just need an opportunity,” Park said.
In 2015, Park published her autobiography, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, in which she shares her remarkable journey from defection to higher education.
“If I can adjust to New York City, I can survive anywhere,” Park said.