Yeonmi Park Delivers Fitzpatrick Lecture

The visit by human rights activist and North Korean defector Yeonmi Park to Woodberry's campus left students, faculty, and other guests spellbound. Many students remained behind for an hour after Park's speech to meet her and ask questions.
North Korean defector and human rights activist Yeonmi Park delivered the forty-fifth annual Fitzpatrick Lecture at Woodberry Forest School on September 13, 2018. Ms. Park escaped from North Korea in 2007, when she was thirteen years old, and gained international prominence as a speaker, human rights activist, and author.

Ms. Park told students that the concept of human rights could not be learned while living in North Korea, where citizens are told what to think and what to do. Words like “rights,” “love,” and even “I” do not exist there, she said. As she shared the story of her defection, she explained that watching an illegal copy of Titanic and seeing the lights of China in the distance helped her and her family decide to make the risky journey to China.

Once in China, Ms. Park endured two years in the the hands of human traffickers. She crossed the Gobi Desert to Mongolia with the help of Christian missionaries and then went to South Korea. “When I came to the free world,” she said, “I felt like I was at a different planet.” Yeonmi Park garnered international attention when she spoke at the One Young World summit in 2014 in Dublin, Ireland. Video of her talk went viral and resulted in her moving to New York to write her 2015 memoir, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom. She is currently a student at Columbia University.

During the assembly in Bowman Gray Auditorium, Yeonmi Park spoke on her belief that the people of North Korea and the United States “share the same humanity.” As she concluded her remarks and opened the assembly to questions, she reminded her audience: “We are in a paradise, and you have everything you need to change the world. You won this lottery.”

Students enthusiastically engaged Ms. Park, asking her questions about daily life during her childhood, her thoughts about solving the problems of North Korea, and her view of the US government’s attitude toward her homeland. She revealed that her outspoken criticism of the Kim regime makes her a target but affirmed that her commitment to her mission renders the risk worthwhile. “My dream is going home,” she said. “I want to free my country. I am grateful that you are curious and want to explore the world.”

The Fitzpatrick Lecture Series was established in 1973 through gifts from Mr. and Mrs. William Fitzpatrick, parents and grandparents of six Woodberry alumni. The late Mr. Fitzpatrick was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a member of the Woodberry Forest School Board of Trustees, and an honorary alumnus. Past Fitzpatrick lecturers include civil rights leader James Farmer, presidential candidate Ralph Nader, astronaut Fred Haise, and presidential historian Jon Meacham.
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