‘But they didn’t succeed.’ Initially shielded from the effects of the famine, Yeonmi’s world started to disintegrate when, in 2002, her father was arrested for illegal trading. Yeonmi’s father was taken to a prison near Pyongyang and given a 17-year sentence. After three years Yeonmi’s father managed to bribe his way out of jail. Shortly after his arrest they were forced to move from a comfortable house in Hyesan to a minuscule apartment.Her mother visited him once but that was enough to see the toll that the brutal torture had taken on her husband. Guards placed sticks between his fingers and crunched them together. But by then he had been diagnosed with colon cancer. After his release they almost immediately began plotting their escape into China to start a new life.The following year, on July 8, Kim Il-sung, the country’s 82-year-old founder and ‘Great Leader’, died of a heart attack.Hopes that he might have been ready to gradually open North Korea to the world evaporated as his son Kim Jong-il took power and set about transforming the hermit nation into a member of George W Bush’s notorious ‘axis of evil’.
Yeonmi’s mother implored the man to leave her daughter alone and offered herself instead. ‘Literally, in front of me, he raped her.’ A few days later Yeonmi’s father, who had become concerned about their lengthy absence, slipped across the border and managed to join them. Yeonmi and her parents still had not managed to track down Eunmi but they decided to remain in China rather than attempt a potentially dangerous return to North Korea. Her parents would collect water from a dripping tap. A construction boom was under way in Beijing as it geared up to host the summer Olympics.And next month she will attend the annual One Young World Summit in Dublin, where she will appear alongside figures including Kofi Annan, Sir Bob Geldof, the former Mexican president Vicente Fox, and Dame Ellen Mac Arthur, the world record-breaking sailor.Yeonmi was born on October 4 1993 in Hyesan, a notoriously cold river port along North Korea’s 850-mile northern border with China.He was made to sit in excruciating stress positions for interminable periods. When Yeonmi saw him on his release, the once strapping figure had been transformed into a ghost of a man. But before the family could put its plan into action, Eunmi, Yeonmi’s 16-year-old sister, fled across the border with a friend without telling them.Terrified about how she might fare on her own, Yeonmi and her mother decided to follow her over the border and bring her home.In February 2009 Yeonmi and her mother found themselves deep in the Gobi desert, searching the night sky for the Plough to guide them over the border into Mongolia and towards freedom.Once there, they could request help from South Korean diplomats who were known to help refugees from the north escaping to Seoul.As the executioners raised their weapons, Yeonmi covered her face.But she looked up again, just in time to see an explosion of blood and the woman’s body crumple to the ground. ‘It was the first time I felt terrified.’ Yeonmi is recounting the horrific incident over a milkshake in Seoul, the ultra-modern capital of South Korea that is only 35 miles from the North Korean border but, with its luxury cars and 10-lane motorways, feels like another planet.Once reunited, the family would attempt a second escape altogether.And so, on the night of March 30 2007, Yeonmi and her mother made their way towards the border with the help of a people smuggler.