It’s difficult to conceive of a worse place in the world than North Korea. In fact, conditions in the country are so horrific—amounting to a massive concentration camp where the majority of the population is routinely brainwashed, starved, and brutalized—that it’s difficult to conceive of North Korea as an actual place at all. In direct contrast to its much wealthier neighbor to the south, most parts of the country lack electricity, plumbing, and basic necessities. Now infamous nighttime pictures of the Korean Peninsula from space speak volumes.
And if this weren’t bad enough, the country is armed with nukes.
Unfortunately, the ongoing horrors of North Korea have largely receded from the popular consciousness. Two decades ago, one could say that North Korea’s infamy peaked when George W. Bush included it as part of the “Axis of Evil.” Even “South Park’s” creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, recognized the evil of the Kim regime by casting Kim Jong Il as the main antagonist in their puppet comedy “Team America: World Police.” True, this had the effect of trivializing the dictatorship’s obscene atrocities, but at least people were reminded that North Koreans suffered—and that America’s main trading partner, China, was funding all of it.
In response to this ignorance and indifference, the North Korean refugee/YouTuber Yeonmi Park has written her second book While Time Remains. While her first book In Order to Live tells the harrowing story of how she escaped North Korea, While Time Remains checks back with Park 10 years later as she lives the life of a high-profile activist in the United States. Although she’s now a happy mother who still relishes the freedom and abundance of her new home, she notices disconcerting trends that pose a serious threat to her new home country. Specifically, she decries leftists’ superficial commitment to social justice that achieves the opposite of its intended goals (a.k.a., woke culture), the practical consequence of this ideology on public safety, and the Left’s war on free speech.
Park starts her book by describing her experience as a student at Columbia University. As one might imagine, living in the Big Apple represented a complete reversal of her former life: “Many aspects of daily life in New York were an inversion of the only reality I’d ever known.” Whereas in North Korea, people were starving, ugly, and desperately poor, Americans in New York struggled with overeating and beauty standards, and had so much money that simply managing it was an industry in itself.
Too many Americans, particularly privileged ones attending Ivy League colleges in New York City, failed to appreciate this prosperity. As an illustration, Park discusses how she was treated like a naïve simpleton for daring to appreciate great works of art, literature, and music in her humanities classes at Columbia. In one instance, Park spoke in defense of Western classical music only to be humiliated and belittled by her progressive instructor: “The professor responded to this benign statement [that works of art can have valued despite the backgrounds of the artists] . . . by telling me, in front of all my new classmates, that I had likely been ‘brainwashed.’ I wanted to cry—not out of sadness or fear or even embarrassment, but from frustration.” She later explains how this brazen rejection of objective standards and clumsy enforcement of political correctness triggered bad memories of North Korean education, where students were told the truth was whatever the Kims said it was.
Sure enough, Park encounters a good number of snowflakes seeking “safe spaces” to vent their grievances and attends workshops on sexual consent. Seen from the eyes of a former sex slave who has suffered all kinds of privations, Park describes this environment as nothing less than a tool of propaganda: “Columbia’s ‘safe space’ was elite code language for restrictions on ideological heterogeneity.” In the interest of safeguarding feelings, nonconformity is treated as aggression and thus must be erased. Instead of a “marketplace of ideas where students had unlimited possibilities to think differently and push the boundaries of the status quo,” the university felt more like “a cult.”
Somehow, Park is able to make it through the woke nonsense of college, get married, have a child, and move to Chicago. This brings her to the next pivotal moment in her life—an assault on the street—which ultimately became her inspiration for writing this book. Despite hearing the constant drumbeat about the evils of Trump and racism in the United States, she finds these positions challenged as she observes the George Floyd riots on her block, and she herself becomes the victim of a mugging. Because her assailants were black women, bystanders simply accused her of racism when she cried out for help.
This event moved Park to question many of the leftist narratives she had come to adopt, prompting her to consider the perils of socialism and the elite class that hypocritically promotes it: “[the elite] apparently don’t see the United States as the predominantly middle-class country it is . . . but as a caste system in which it’s possible to accumulate wealth only through privilege and systemic abuse of the lower classes, never through hard work or innovation.” As she witnessed in North Korea, this is exactly what happens in a socialist system where elites really do make it to the top through political intrigue and exploiting the lower classes. Presumably, this is much easier than actually working and innovating, which is why the main beneficiaries of capitalism continue endorsing socialism.
Then there is the matter of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has paid off the majority of American elites. If Park’s target in her first book was the Kim regime, she makes it quite explicit that her target in this book is the CCP. They are the ones who keep the Kim regime in power. Time and again, Park would give speeches to the world’s most powerful people, all of whom said they wanted to help her, but she held back because of their economic and political commitments with China: “The fact is, a large segment of America’s elite classes and most productive industries have been purchased by the Chinese.”
Park’s criticisms of the CCP caused her to lose speaking engagements and have her YouTube videos demonetized: “As I became more publicly critical of the Chinese government—mostly for its role in the sexual enslavement of North Korean women, hardly a ‘controversial’ position—there was increasing pressure for previously friendly organizations to shut me out, on the basis that I was too controversial.”
And just like that, what was once a powerful voice against a mass crime against humanity was snuffed out and relegated to the margins.
To her credit, Park does not take this treatment lying down, but is quite blunt in what should count as China’s worst human rights violation: its ongoing support of the Kim regime. So long as Americans continue to remain blissfully ignorant of this horror—or worse, complicit in it—more North Koreans will suffer. Worse still, and as Park’s life in the United States suggests, more Americans will slowly adopt the totalitarian logic of North Korea and lose the freedoms that made them great.
Overall, Park’s book is successful in its mission to change hearts and minds, but there are moments where her activism and associations get the better of her. The people she describes in her book feel more like caricatures than real people, and some of her arguments seem lifted from popular conservative figures like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro and arbitrarily shoehorned into her own narrative. Because of this, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that she’s more interested in situating herself in this crowd of influencers than in speaking authentically about what she knows. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it tends to reduce a pressing issue that should concern everyone into rhetorical red meat for conservatives.
Aside from this, While Time Remains is generally well-written and speaks to a matter that deserves far more attention than it receives. It’s admirable and inspiring to see that Park has devoted her life to helping improve the plight of her people, and one can’t help but want to join this effort. Not only does it require the education and awareness that she provides in her book, but also a hefty dose of honesty from Americans who make the mistake of taking their blessings for granted.
Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared originally at The Everyman.