The smiling appearance of the 20-year-old on talent and chat show ‘On My Way to Meet You’ gives little away about her traumatising life in North Korea and her family’s desperate escape.
“I was nine years old or ten. Next to the school, some street kids were there, and they were dying there,” she tells Mary Ann Jolley from SBS’s Dateline about life during the great famine in the late 1990s.
Her father was sentenced to 17 years in a labour camp for smuggling goods to China to make ends meet. He was beaten daily, but during a brief reprieve for medical treatment, Yeon-mi and her parents decided to escape.
They bribed guards to cross into China and hid from authorities, but then her father was diagnosed with cancer and given just three months to live.
“What can I do with his body after he dies? As a North Korean defector, there is no way to even comfortably die. No funeral too,” she says.
After burying her father alone in the mountains in the dead of night, Yeon-mi and her mother walked across the Gobi Desert for 24 hours in freezing temperatures to reach Mongolia.
“I saw my father’s death. It was not human, he was less better than an animal,” she says. “I didn’t want the end of my life to be like that.”
Her determination eventually saw them reach Seoul after a two year journey, and Yeon-mi vowed to speak out about the regime in the North, despite the dangers and continuing threats.
“For me it’s really dangerous, but you cannot hide the truth, they are criminals,” she tells Mary Ann.
Yeon-mi joined the chat show three years ago and has since become a familiar face. It regularly mocks the regime in the North.
“The show is actually telling the truth about North Korea,” she says. “And of course North Korea itself is propaganda and they don’t want to let people know the truth.”
She’s now also working as a reporter and newsreader for New Focus International, which has received threats from North Korea for its reporting of events there, such as the execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle.
But family time is important to Yeon-mi too, especially with her older sister Eunmi.
She escaped from North Korea first, but Yeon-mi and her mother didn’t know she had survived the journey until an emotional TV appeal helped bring them back together seven years later.
“I couldn’t speak. I was so happy but shocked,” Eunmi says about them being reunited. She’s still traumatised by her experience and unable to talk about much of what happened to her.
“What can you say if you didn’t see [each other] for seven years?” Yeon-mi says. “There are no words for that. Just seeing each other and holding hands together.”
See the full story on tonight’s Dateline at 9.30pm on SBS ONE.