A North Korean defector who lived in the country until she was 15 has described how she was brought up to believe that leader Kim Jong-il was “a god” who could read her thoughts.
Yeonmi Park, now 20, said she was brainwashed through propaganda “24/7” and was constantly aware of people around her being made to “disappear”.
Five years ago she and her parents were able to escape the country into China, and were eventually accepted as refugees in South Korea.
She said it took months in an “education centre”, where defectors were given books and encouraged to study on the internet, before she could be rid of the idea that the late North Korean dictator, father of Kim Jong-un, was able to read her mind “from afar”.
Speaking to SBS One in Australia, Ms Park said: “It was like living in hell. There were constant power outages, so everything was dark. There was no transportation – everyone had to walk everywhere. It was very dirty and no one could eat anything.
“It was not the right conditions for human life, but you couldn't think about it, let alone complain about it. Even though you were suffering, you had to worship the regime every day.
“I had to be careful of my thoughts because I believed Kim Jong-il could read my mind. Every couple of days someone would disappear. A classmate's mother was punished in a public execution that I was made to attend. I had no choice – there were spies in the neighbourhood.”
Ms Park explained that her father was a government official, but he was jailed and the family sent away from Pyongyang after he was accused of trading metals with China.
When her father became ill with cancer, Ms Park said, he was released from prison for treatment – at which point the family was able to escape across a frozen river into China.
Her father eventually died, and the family met some missionaries who said they could find a new life if they made it to South Korea. Ms Park and her mother could not afford to pay for transport, she said, so made their way into Mongolia – where the government arranged for them to be moved to South Korea.
“This whole time, I was still so brainwashed that I thought Kim Jong-il could read my mind from afar,” she said. “Even though I had escaped, I wouldn't let myself think anything negative about the regime.
“I realised that everything I thought was a lie. I had not been a real person – I was created for the regime to work for them. If they ordered us to die, I would've died for them. I wasn't a human – I was something else. I certainly wasn't treated like one. I knew nothing of freedom. It took about three years to fully get over the brainwashing.
“My mother took longer than me. When Kim Jong-il died she couldn't believe it. We were in South Korea by then and she said, ‘He can't die because he's not a human, he's a god!’ It was very hard for us to comprehend that he was just a human, but I helped my mother see the truth.
“I'm now studying at university, learning about international relations and I feel like a different person. When I was in North Korea, no one asked me ‘what do you think?’, ‘what do you want to be in future?’, ‘what do you dream?’ I now have free will.”
Ms Park said she still has many relatives in North Korea who are too afraid to escape, and that now she wants to work to help others who have suffered human rights abuses.
SBS One’s interview with Yeonmi Park for the programme Insight: Changing a Mindset was broadcast at 8.30pm on 8 August