'Woke' US schools scarier than North Korea, says defector

Yeonmi Park, who fled North Korea in 2007, said she was 'embarrassed' to study human rights in America
Yeonmi Park, who fled North Korea in 2007, said she was 'embarrassed' to study human rights in America

A North Korean defector who sought refuge in the US said she was "embarrassed" to study human rights in America because it had become synonymous with socialism in universities.

Yeonmi Park, 29, who fled the hermit state as a young teenager in 2007, became a US citizen last year.

Her memoir, In Order To Live, detailing her perilous journey to freedom, gained her an international platform as a human rights activist.

However, since relocating to America, and earning a degree from Columbia University, she has sounded the alarm over "cancel culture" and political influences on the country's education system.

In her latest book, While Time Remains, she writes that she has discovered some of the same encroachments on freedom in America as in North Korea, from identity politics and authoritarian tendencies to elite hypocrisy.

'Racist' maths

In an interview with The Telegraph, Ms Park said she was shocked by the political ideology promoted by professors and fellow students at the Ivy League university.

She claimed that while studying for a human rights degree, she was taught that Jane Austen "promoted white supremacy", maths was "racist" and debate over trans issues were silenced.

"They were demonising capitalism, free markets and Western civilisation. Anything that was white was bad," she said.
"I couldn't believe it. This is the same thing that I was learning in a North Korean classroom".

Ms Park has faced criticism for her comparisons between life in America and the brutality of life in North Korea, which they argue risks undermining the severity of human rights abuses former compatriots endure.

Discussing it with The Telegraph, she conceded there was "no comparison" between living standards and the level of freedom of people between North Korea and the US.

"But what I am pointing out is the similarities with what is happening in America. And that is scary and that is where Americans are not understanding," she said.

"They don't understand that North Korea did not become that way just one day. It began somewhere, it took a course of many, many bad decisions to make it what it is today."

'Crazier than North Korea'

Ms Park was particularly critical of the way in which discussions around sex and gender were policed on campus, calling it "crazier than North Korea".

She said: "For instance, professors have to say that genders were a social construct made up by white men to oppress minorities.

"In North Korea, we believe that men cannot get pregnant, they cannot breastfeed... In Columbia [if you say that], you are a bigot."

She claimed that when she pushed back on discussions around gender, a professor told her she had been "brainwashed".
"[We have] the best, brightest minds of Ivy League education in Columbia, [but] they will literally say the same things" as you hear in a North Korean classroom, she said.

She ridiculed the promotion of "safe spaces" on campus, comparing students' cosseted existence and reluctance to discuss difficult issues to her own life story, after being sex trafficked from North Korea into China.

Ms Park initially studied economics and then switched to human rights, said she was "embarrassed" by the way it was co-opted by left-wing academics.

"For these people, human rights means free education, free health care, universal income, free housing - which means a socialist state," she said.

"In North Korea, the regime promises the same thing."

She added: "Human rights doesn't mean these free things... Free [to me] means that you have a right to pursue happiness, the right to start your own business, the right to practice your own religion and freedom of speech."

Woke ideology

Ms Park, who attended Columbia from 2016 to 2020, said her concerns about "woke ideology" in the US were heightened by the national debate on racial equality that erupted following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

She argued that discussions around race had come to be the lens through which other victims, like herself, were viewed.
And she argued that the focus on America's legacy of slavery had blinded the country to the plight of modern slavery.

She said: "I realised, somehow in current America, based on your skin colour, they decide who deserves justice and who deserves compassion.

"In America right now, even though I was actually a sex slave, my mother was an actual slave and went through real oppression, they say I'm privileged because I cannot understand oppression because I'm a white passing person."

She added: "I think that's when I realised this ideology was not just on college campus. It had spread to the public."