It takes gall to go after a North Korean defector, and on the front page of the New York Times, no less. The paper’s staff writer Charles Homans’ odd choice of target appeared in the Friday edition under the rather tasteless headline, “Yeonmi Park, a North Korean Dissident, Defects to the American Right.”
Although the Times has in the past been notably soft on North Korea’s Communist dictatorship, one could hardly imagine the paper straining so hard to cast doubt on a defector who suffered greatly under the regime, just for the crime of supporting conservative policy and comparing the American left to the dictatorship she escaped.
''The first thing my mom taught me as a young girl living in North Korea was don't even whisper, because birds and mice could hear me,'' Yeonmi Park told the audience that had come to hear her speak in Queens.
''This is what dictators do: they plant a spike everywhere, a distrust between people, a distrust between family, even. The teachers tell their children,'' she went on, '''If your parents say one wrong thing, come to tell the teacher.'''
It was a story that Ms. Park has told often, on television sets and conference stages and in a best-selling memoir, over the decade she has spent as one of the world's most famous defectors from the Kim family's isolated totalitarian state.
But in recent years, she has added a new postscript.
''And now,'' she told the crowd in Long Island City last weekend, ''I see the same thing in America.''
The Times can’t forgive her for turning on the intolerant American left.
Ms. Park's transformation from celebrity defector to loud critic of liberal identity politics is extraordinarily rare. Very few of the tens of thousands of people who have fled North Korea wade into domestic politics in the countries where they have taken refuge.
But in an American political climate that rewards hyperbole and alarm, Ms. Park, who became a U.S. citizen in 2021, has found a lucrative niche.
Homans noted darkly that Park "is a regular guest on popular right-leaning TV networks and podcasts, and speaker at conservative universities and think tanks." She also became a contributor to Turning Point USA.
Her recent trajectory has drawn winces from some past allies and supporters, who worry about the toll that her dive into the American culture wars may take on her effectiveness as a human rights advocate. And some observers of her career, noting her history of reinvention and questions raised about the accuracy of her account, have lifted an eyebrow at her latest act.
It seems only escapees from left-wing regimes have to endure this doubt about how bad things really were.
Homans described a talk Park gave in Dublin in 2014.
There were some noted inconsistencies among the stories Ms. Park had told to her South Korean audience and the ones she now told. Mary Ann Jolley, an Australian journalist, published a detailed account of conflicting and implausible details, from the government atrocities she described to the geographical details of her escape, her father's death in China and her experience in detention in Mongolia.
Homans ran into overtime nit-picking Park’s story.
In her book, she writes that [at Columbia University] she was criticized for her enjoyment of Jane Austen novels and Western classical music. She describes the First Amendment as ''a law Columbia teaches its students to hate'' -- though she does not mention that she studied at Columbia with Lee Bollinger, the university president and a prominent First Amendment scholar known for his expansive view of freedom of speech and for defending conservative and far-right speakers' prerogative to appear on campus. Ms. Park declined to comment on the contents of the class. Columbia declined to comment.