The Ivies=NK?

Or, you know, not.

Via Fox News: North Korean defector says ‘even North Korea was not this nuts’ after attending Ivy League school.

As American educational institutions continue to be called into question, a North Korean defector fears the United States’ future “is as bleak as North Korea” after she attended one of the country’s most prestigious universities.

Yeonmi Park has experienced plenty of struggle and hardship, but she does not call herself a victim.   

One of several hundred North Korean defectors settled in the United States, Park, 27, transferred to Columbia University from a South Korean university in 2016 and was deeply disturbed by what she found.

From the write-up and the video, the objections seem to focus on issues like criticisms of colonialism, the sins of white men, and other issues like the confusion created by gender pronouns.


Having come to America with high hopes and expectations, Yeonmi expressed her disappointment. 

“You guys have lost common sense to degree that I as a North Korean cannot even comprehend,” she said. 

“Where are we going from here?” she wondered. “There’s no rule of law, no morality, nothing is good or bad anymore, it’s complete chaos.”

“I guess that’s what they want, to destroy every single thing and rebuild into a Communist paradise.”

Several thoughts.

First and foremost, all of this being asserted on cable news to promote a book she just published is, well, something. Nothing screams “the US is becoming North Korea” than a book tour.

Second, the notion that being told that Jane Austen had a “colonial mindset” is comparable to living under the North Korean regime to be absurd on its face. Indeed, the piece itself notes the following.

“Because I have seen oppression, I know what it looks like,” said Yeonmi, who by the age of 13 had witnessed people drop dead of starvation right before her eyes.

Look, are their blowhard ideologues on Columbia’s campus? I suspect there are more than one. But they can’t starve you to death. (And I would also guarantee that most of the faculty are neither blowhards nor ideologues).

So, while I do not dispute she knows what oppression looks like, her ability to engage in basic comparative analysis is wanting. (And let me note, I am quite pleased for her, on a human level, that she escaped North Korea).

After getting into a number of arguments with professors and students, eventually Yeonmi “learned how to just shut up” in order to maintain a good GPA and graduate. 

Not feeling as though one can argue with one’s professors and then getting an Ivy League diploma is simply not the same as living under one of the most brutal totalitarian regimes in the world.

Further, students love to say things like this all the time. Students are frequently the heroes in their own stories (as, no doubt, professors are in theirs). But having been a student, a professor, and a college dean who often has to deal with student complaints, I have a lot of experience with this stuff. Let me note that first, the opportunities for students to be constantly getting into arguments with professors are far fewer than these stories make it sound. Second, if a student is really constantly arguing, they will be shut down at some point–after all, the other students didn’t pay for school to listen to one of their colleagues harangue their professor. After all, at some point, the sophomore in lit class just doesn’t have the expertise of the Associate Professor at Columbia has (not to mention the classroom dynamic issue).

Also, student perception about who is right and who is wrong (and what is just “opinion”) is often skewed. I still remember a student e-mailing me on Christmas Day early in my career to tell me I was an “asshole who grades only your own opinion.” I don’t recall all the details about the grade at this point, save that it was an essay about the Cuban revolution that was full of factual and theoretical errors. It is certainly my experience that students (indeed, most people, have a hard time distinguishing between “opinion” and other kinds of knowledge).

None of this is to say that students aren’t sometimes right and faculty sometimes wrong, nor is it to say that faculty aren’t sometimes jerks. It is to say, however, that a student whose self-image is that of the persecuted intellectual rebel who is smarter than all her professors means either that the student is a once-in-a-generation genius of transcendent intelligence or that student is self-deluded.

Third, this story is written clearly to promote FNC’s ongoing attacks on higher education, its concern over the deep threat of pronouns, and to bemoan how awful white dudes have it.

And the sloppiness is annoying:

It only got worse from there as Yeonmi realized that every one of her classes at the Ivy League school was infected with what she saw as anti-American propaganda, reminiscent to the sort she had grown up with.

“‘American Bastard’ was one word for North Koreans” Park was taught growing up. 

“The math problems would say ‘there are four American bastards, you kill two of them, how many American bastards are left to kill?'”

So, the first paragraph states that that there was anti-American propaganda at her US school, but the examples are all from North Korea. A casual reader could easily come away with the impression that she was being taught word problems about “American Bastards” at Columbia.

I know Park is trying to sell book and FNC wants clicks and to feed the outrage machine, but good grief.

Indeed, I tried to find out more about Park and her book, but most of what I can find is either linked back to the FNC piece or is from tabloid-style international papers. The most remarkable citation was in a column entitled “Americans need to think critically” by Richard P. Carlson in a Wyoming paper. The remarkable thing is that he cites parts of the FNC interview uncritically (I had a brief, naive, hope that the column was going to use Park’s position as an example of why critical thinking is needed, but alas…).

US democracy has some definite challenges, but it is not that some folks at Columbia University think that Jane Austen is problematic or that some college kids talk about oppression. And we are hardly on a trajectory towards communism, let alone an NK style regime. And it doesn’t help that FNC is trying to make its viewers and readers think that Ivy League universities are taking us down to road to totalitarian communism.

(And this ended up being a lot longer than I intended, and in many ways not worth the time–this was originally going to be in the Tab Clearing Friday post, but while Park can write and say what she likes, FNC’s presentation is part of a pernicious pattern).

FILED UNDER: Asia, Democracy, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Kathy says:

    If Harvard isn’t investing that multibillion dollar endowment on reeducation camps and prisons, what’s it spending it on?

  2. Jay L Gischer says:

    So, do you suppose she learned how to operate a right-wing grift in NK, or at Yale?

    My money’s on Yale.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    Ted Cruz, Princeton, Harvard Law.
    Tom Cotton, Harvard College, Harvard Law
    Josh Hawley, Stanford, Yale Law
    John Roberts, Harvard, Harvard Law
    Clarence Thomas, Holy Cross, Yale Law
    Samuel Alito, Princeton, Yale Law
    Neil Gorsuch, Columbia, Harvard Law
    Brett Kavanaugh, Yale, Yale Law

    I think we need to have a “total and complete shutdown” of Harvard Law and Yale Law “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

  4. CSK says:

    Hey, don’t forget Donald Trump, who never misses an opportunity to boast about his Ivy League degree.

  5. Kurtz says:

    Here is an article from 2014 that points to a series of inconsistencies in Park’s stories.

  6. drj says:

    Columbia worse than North Korea?

    At some point it’s better, IMO, to point and laugh rather than dignify evident nonsense with a response.

  7. @Kurtz: Interesting, thanks.

  8. steve says:

    This is one of the current obsessions on the right. She will get a lot of attention and make a lot of money with this book. I think the left purity police go overboard sometimes. The woke stuff can be a bit much. I can get tired of the gender stuff. However, none of that equates to communism or some totalitarian government but that is what they really think because they are being told to think that.

    Just n the student side of things I have certainly had the know it all med student or resident. The one who always knows better than anyone else. They are always trouble. Maybe there is a once in a lifetime transcendent brilliant student out there but I haven seen it. Mind you the operative word is “always”. I am wrong, the rest of my staff are wrong, sometimes. (According to my wife all of the time.) We just arent always wrong while someone who has never finished trying is always wrong.

    This bugs me. “No morality.” I know an awful lot of highly moral people. No rule of law? No, we have rule of law the overwhelming majority of the time. Do the wealthy and powerful get away with stuff sometimes? Sure, but not comparison to N Korea and for that matter most of the rest of the world.

    My best guess? She isn’t really that bright. She got into Columbia because she has an interesting story. She didn’t cope well with finding out she was wrong sometimes. Now sh tis at least clever enough to figure out she can make a lot of money with her story.


  9. Matt Bernius says:

    She’s smart enough to have figured out that there is a market full of JKBs who will buy what she is selling because it fits their existing biases. I first hear about her earlier this week when JKB cited her as proof that Colleges and Universities are indoctrination camps for Democrats.

    Also, Steven I think you meant to quote a different section of the source in the second quote. Right now it is repeating part of the first.

  10. @Matt Bernius:

    She’s smart enough to have figured out that there is a market full of JKBs who will buy what she is selling because it fits their existing biases. I first hear about her earlier this week when JKB cited her as proof that Colleges and Universities are indoctrination camps for Democrats.

    Indeed (and I missed his reference to her).

    Steven I think you meant to quote a different section of the source in the second quote. Right now it is repeating part of the first

    Thanks for noting that.

  11. mattbernius says:
  12. @mattbernius: Wow–that’s quite the comment.

  13. flat earth luddite says:

    I remember reading this comment several times, because at the time I was unable to parse it into anything resembling a coherent statement. Or argument. Or anything other than, “wow, that was one too many hits of blotter acid.” Re-reading it this morning didn’t improve my impression. But then again, I frequently feel that way about that contributor’s comments.

    @Steven L. Taylor: Indeed, Dr. T, indeed.

  14. Mimai says:

    Oh man does this strike a chord. But instead of focusing on Park and/or FNC (who don’t deserve the attention), I will focus on Steven and this glorious bit of writing:

    Students are frequently the heroes in their own stories (as, no doubt, professors are in theirs).

    It is to say, however, that a student whose self-image is that of the persecuted intellectual rebel who is smarter than all her professors means either that the student is a once-in-a-generation genius of transcendent intelligence or that student is self-deluded.

    Delicious, absolutely delicious!

  15. Gustopher says:

    As I grow older I become more patient with people who believe things in good faith, and less patient with those who don’t.

    We should toss Park into a work camp somewhere, and just forget about her. Would North Korea like her back?

  16. Michael Cain says:

    Some of the questions that popped into my head for Park were, “Why on earth were you at Columbia? Given what you seemed to want from a US university, why did you choose an Ivy in New York City? Why did you stay there if it was so terrible?”

  17. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Add to that list (just for the sake of equity):

    (all HLS graduates)

    Barack Obama
    Merrick Garland
    Loretta Lynch
    Tim Kaine
    Carl Levin
    Mitt Romney
    Joaquin Castro
    Barney Frank
    Jane Harman

    Harry Blackmun
    Louis Brandeis
    William Brennan
    Stephen Breyer
    Felix Frankfurter
    Harold Hitz Burton
    Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
    Anthony Kennedy
    Elena Kagan

    Amy Berman Jackson
    Ketanji Brown Jackson
    Learned Hand
    Henry Friendly

    I could make a much longer one, but I think you get the point.

  18. grumpy realist says:

    Well, she’s certainly learned the grift side of the USA and has decided to double down on it.

    Anyone who is so unappreciative of the chance that she was given should at least get any scholarship yanked and get kicked out. Maybe if she had to live a few years scrubbing floors on minimum wage she would be a bit more grateful.

    As it is, she just comes off as a looney. Since when were people taught Jane Austen novels in North Korea?

  19. dazedandconfused says:

    Reminds me of a Russian officer I met overseas in the mid 90s. The USSR had collapsed and he was very curious how the hell we managed things. He was so used to living in a tightly organized society his impressions of the US, at a normal state, was that of chaos. He had been strongly conditioned to fear chaos of any kind in the USSR. Right to his bones.

    This gal reflects a common anxiety felt by people raised in totalitarian states when exposed to true freedom of speech and though. Ironically, by citing her concerns in the way they did, the RW media is calling for us to be more like NK. Obsessed with hatred of “liberals”, they probably have no idea they are doing so.

  20. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Oh, toss in RBG as well, who completed the bulk of her legal education at HLS and would have graduated from the same absent a combination of misogyny and her desire to accompany her husband to NY.

  21. Kurtz says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I didn’t know who Carlson was. I googled his name without reading his piece. He has a sermon called, “Obey Now and be Amazed Later

    The Christmas story reveals the path of obedience that makes Christmas the beginning of the greatest story ever told. Today I want us to examine how learning from these main characters surrounding the birth of Jesus, is how we can learn the heart of Christmas—which is, “obey now, and be amazed later.” We are going to examine five ways this obedience was manifested that first Christmas.

    Shit, I need a second to let the evidence of critical thinking waft over me.

  22. Michael Cain says:


    I recall stories told about Soviet refugees who were mentally immobilized by their first trip to an American supermarket. The one I remember in particular was, “I just wanted a can of corn. I couldn’t handle choosing between six brands, three different styles, variations like low-sodium. I just wanted a can. Of. Corn.” Also one story where the refugee had managed the choices in the aisles, but was reduced to tears when the check-out clerk asked, “Paper or plastic bag?”

    Of course, it wasn’t just the Soviets. I had a boss who had traveled extensively throughout Africa and sponsored a very bright young man for a program at the local state university. He held a very large BBQ after that young man had been to the supermarket and discovered that you could stand at the meat counter and say, “Four pounds of ribs. Three pounds of steak. Three pounds of pork loin. Four pounds of chicken breasts. Two pounds of veal. A pound of lamb,” and the clerk simply wrapped it up at what seemed to be incredibly cheap prices.

    Related to my comment above, did anyone sit down with Park and tell her that there were universities that weren’t Ivies, and weren’t in NYC, and might be a better match for what she was looking for? And, at least in my opinion, unless she was looking to do very specific things in graduate school in the US (I include law in that), would provide an excellent education.

  23. Paine says:

    She is welcome to attend Pyongyang U. if she thinks she will get a better education there.

  24. Ken_L says:

    She left North Korea 14 years ago, when she was 13. Even if she has perfect recall of her childhood, which is very unlikely, attempting to compare her experiences in elementary and middle schools to her university education is plain weird. I doubt she was learning elementary ‘4-2=?’ arithmetic at Columbia. The only thing she cites resembling evidence for her opinion is that a ‘University staff member’ scolded her for liking Jane Austen. Apart from that, her whole diatribe is nothing but incoherent assertions.

  25. grumpy realist says:

    @Ken_L: Yah, reading the critique of Park’s story above shows there are some pretty big gaping holes in it. (Park gets a chance to answer the critiques, but since her main excuse is “I didn’t know English very well when I was saying that” I’m dubious. Surely she was interviewed at some point by someone who spoke Korean?)

    Also, there’s also the possibility that Park is a fabulist with mental issues and is earnestly proclaiming stuff that at this point she believes is true.

  26. dazedandconfused says:

    @Michael Cain:

    I can relate to that feeling! The company I work for has installed four new order-entry softwares in the last five years…and they simply install it and say “Go!”. A screen full of obscurely labeled buttons…and all I want to do is write an order. Excuse me while I wipe away a few tears…

  27. DrDaveT says:


    I could make a much longer one, but I think you get the point.

    The lesson I come away with is that HLS is an amplifier — it takes its inputs and magnifies them, makes them more influential, isotropically.

    I don’t have any personal experience of HLS, but I did vicariously experience a different Ivy law school through some of my housemates, including the one who eventually became my spouse. The law students who went on to become malignant growths on American jurisprudence didn’t acquire their malignance in law school; they brought it with them and honed it in law school.

  28. K Little says:

    All will come out eventually ; 1) Gov’t: corrupted 2)Law: corrupted 3)Morality: corrupted
    and we will all want to …talk about the weather for safety and to be pleasant as per Jane Austen