"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

'Covers the campus like the magnolias'
"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

Wake Forest shouldn’t host propaganda

Speakers like Yeonmi Park should not be allowed to peddle lies
Maryam Khanum
North Korean defector Yeonmi Park speaks at Wake Forest.

North Korean defector Yeonmi Park gave a speech titled “The Truth about Communism” in Benson University Center last Wednesday night to an audience of Wake Forest students, faculty and other guests. Admission was free, but attendees were charged with a heavy toll of lies, propaganda and inciting comments. 

In her hour-long talk, Park preached about her tragic life in North Korea and perilous journey to the U.S., denouncing the inhumane rule of North Korea and recounting the unimaginable suffering she had undergone just to stay alive. When she said that she was now a U.S. citizen, there was applause from the audience. I didn’t clap with them. 

Candidly, I was more skeptical than sympathetic. To me, Park’s narrative and stories were used to achieve the same goal as the North Korean regime she so fervently attacked and criticized — brainwashing. 

There were many problems with Park’s speech. Her stories were handpicked to match the expectation of a conservative audience, and she used emotionally charged language to capture the crowd’s hearts and minds. Her story also had gaps that made it sound perplexing and incomplete, and she was so eager to please her white American audience that, as a minority student, I found much of her talk strident. 

Story continues below advertisement

But one matter troubled me more than any other — these guest speakers can say whatever they want, even if it’s politically skewed or flat-out false. There is no limit to what guest speakers can say. No fact check can be conducted as they speak and no one can counter what they say. Instead of creating an inclusive space for discourse, the room effectively becomes a propaganda machine. For this reason, I oppose inviting speakers that have a history of making inconsistent claims. Park’s speech is a perfect example of why. 

Park’s speech was sensational and lacked nuance

In her speech, Park made broad and far-fetched criticisms about communism and communist countries without any attempt to address the important intricacies of the issues she talked about. You would imagine she bashed North Korea, but other than telling us how miserable life was in her home country, she mostly attacked China, possibly because it is a bigger “communist” nation than North Korea. Yet, these criticisms attempted to distill a complex picture into bits and pieces of personal stories that simply do not reflect reality.

For example, Park claimed that Chinese men are fond of underaged virgins and that she was sold to a Chinese man following her escape from North Korea. Her mother was sold for $65, and she was sold for $200. Admittedly, China has a problem with cracking down on illegal sexual service, especially the ones that involve coercing teenaged or younger women into submission. However, instead of pointing to a social problem, Park went as far as making broad generalizations about Chinese people and emphasized the fact that this happened under a communist regime. She even said that the Chinese Communist Party was accountable for allowing and sponsoring human trafficking “to prevent the 33 million Chinese men who cannot find a wife from starting a revolution.”

Parts of what Park said were not wrong: there is a historical gap in population between males and females due to the notorious One-Child Policy, which led to many female infants being aborted due to the old idea that men are superior to women. There is human trafficking in China, and there is organ harvesting. 

But not being wrong doesn’t equal being right. A single-sided story is often not the complete story — we must see the world around us through multiple lenses. China has since repealed the One-Child Policy, extended gender equality and allowed much more room for psychological and sexual education by private agencies. China is still behind in many aspects, but parts of it, especially in the blooming frontline cities, has become much more liberated than 10 years ago. An important reason for this to happen is the capitalist free market behind individual companies that step up to address society’s demands where the government fails. The communist state, as many westerners label it, has more characteristics of capitalism than its political ideology suggests.

While my friends and I sit down to talk about China, we always try to be aware that our views are based on the fact that we left that society. We know we need to be empathetic and avoid condescension when talking about China, because we are “privileged” to have escaped from the problems that the people there are experiencing. It would be stupid to simply say “let them eat cake.”

A single-sided story is often not the complete story — we must see the world around us through multiple lenses.

But Park’s criticism demonstrated no such empathy. For someone like Park to undergo the brutal treatments and finally reach the U.S., a place far better than where she started, she should know better than to cast her experience as a pure black-and-white story. She should be very careful about making any generalization, and specifically, she should be able to separate the state and the people. That was not the case at all. 

Sharing personal experience and perspectives on an issue is one thing, capitalizing on personal experience in order to make political claims is another. Park painted a demonized picture of China as a nation filled with pedophilic men who also have virgin complexes. She painted a picture of a country that has human traffickers running rampant with few laws to protect individual safety. To me, these are straight lies. 

Another disturbing moment happened during the Q&A, when a student from China raised concerns about being associated with the Chinese government. I don’t blame him. I also had concerns walking into the event that, as a Chinese man, I would receive strange looks. 

Park’s response to that student was that she “had nothing against Chinese people,” and that “we need to always separate government and people.” To me, that statement should come a lot earlier in her speech. I don’t think it would have taken her so long to make a distinction between the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party had she planned to do so. I wonder if she would have said it without the student’s question. Also, her earlier comment that Chinese men were pedophiles didn’t seem like she wanted to take the people and the state separately.

I believe the disclaimer she made and the timing she chose to make such a claim was intentional and strategic. It is a politically right thing to do so that it wouldn’t seem she is a racist, but she said it late enough so some of the people effectively didn’t hear it. All of her negative comments about China without distinguishing the government from the people could leave a mark on the audience, and it wasn’t a good mark for the Chinese people.

Wake Forest paid for Park to come

It’s worth mentioning that Park did not come to speak at Wake Forest for free. On Young Americans for Freedom’s foundation website, Park’s appearance fee is listed as a range between $10,000-15,000. According to Wake Forest Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) President Pierce Sandlin and the Student Organization Finance Office (SOFO), the national YAF organization and Student Activity Fee fund jointly paid for Park’s appearance. SOFO confirmed that the SAF committee approved $5,000 to cover Park’s appearance (YAF’s request was for $10,000). As of Nov. 14, the university has yet to be billed for this expense. 

Personally, I am not happy with our school paying a speaker who has a history of inconsistent narrative $5,000 to come speak. I probably wouldn’t be happy even if Park offered to speak for free. The cost is an issue, but the impact a guest speaker leaves is a much greater one. It’s not about Park being a conservative or a liberal — her political alignment makes no difference and is not the point of my critique.

We better adopt a new standard before any political organization can peddle propaganda under the free speech clause to pollute people’s minds.

Guest speakers should be evaluated before being allowed on campus. Our university needs better vetting measures before providing a club with funding to do whatever they want. The Student Engagement Office said that the event met the university’s event guidelines around free expression. 

But propaganda does not equal the freedom to express — smears and willful lies are not the same as honest truth. While Park’s speech was within the bounds of the school’s policy, I don’t think a speaker like her deserves the same level of respect as someone else who shows up just to talk. YAF invited economist Arthur Laffer last semester, and I loved it. There is a difference between how Park and Arthur used and honored their freedom of speech. 

But since the school policy does not draw a distinction between these two kinds of speakers, we better adopt a new standard before any political organization can peddle propaganda under the free speech clause to pollute people’s minds.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Old Gold & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *