Article III: Programmed For Love - Part 1

Written by:
Jacob King

Besides being internally wired for communication, we as a species are also programmed for love. No matter who you are, whether you were born in 1993 B.C or in 1993 A.D., or on either side of the planet, we, homo sapiens, need love in order to flourish. For instance, in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, besides our physiological needs (food, air, sleep, etc.) and our safety needs (all the things needed not to be eaten by a lion, tiger or bear), the renowned American psychologist Abraham Maslow lists our need for love as our most fundamental need.

And in the 1950s, another American psychologist Harry Harlow famously tried an experiment on rhesus monkeys. The most common nonhuman primates used in biomedical research, they share about 93 percent of their genes with humans. Harlow sought to observe what would take place when an animal so biologically close to us was deprived of love and affection. When Harlow separated the rhesus monkeys from their real mothers and had them live with and receive nourishment from a cold, affectionless wire lookalike mother, Harlow observed that the rhesus monkeys developed severe behavioral abnormalities. Harlow also noted these abnormalities stayed even after being introduced to more nurturing environments later.

Yet a young woman named Yeonmi Park didn’t need the psychological observations of Maslow and Harlow to recognize just how deep our species’ programming for love really runs. Sometimes lived experience is the greatest of all professors. Yeonmi grew up in a real life Hunger Games; in an Upside Down world that had been engineered with the explicit intent to erase love completely from it.

After the Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945, the Soviet army swept into the northern part of Korea, while the American military took charge of the South. An arbitrary line was drawn dividing the peninsula into two administrative zones: North and South Korea. And in the North Kim Il Sung, who had by then become a Soviet major, was installed as leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kim Il Sung was a narcissistic dictator: he even changed the North Korean calendar to start on the day he was born. Why? Because he was god almighty, of course. He made his people believe he had supernatural powers: he propagated, through forced education, the belief that he and his divine sons “caused the sun to rise, and that he could also control the weather with his thoughts.” Even though Kim had an ego the size of almighty god, he was as heartless as a demon.

Kim created more than fifty different classes of people. Yet, the rise and fall in these castes were not based on things like achievement, as it is in a capitalist society. These “songbuns” were based solely on their ancestor’s loyalty--or lack thereof--to the Kim family. And outside the few top tiers whose entire ancestral line had utterly sold their souls to the all-powerful Kim family, the other less loyal majority were left, by design, in perpetual hunger.

Fullness posed a great danger for Kim and his sons. They began to discover that when their people were fed they would intuitively begin to desire love, despite it being completely snuffed out from their psyches (the Kim family had even gone so far as deleting the word for love from the Korean language). They insidiously knew the only way to keep the Korean people under their iron rod was to eliminate the very idea of love, because love inspired hope, and hope gave way to rebellion. So the Kim family starved love from taking root in their hearts. And starve they did.

Yeonmi was always hungry as a kid:

In the free world, children dream about what they want to be when they grow up and how they can use their talents. When I was four and five years old, my only adult ambition was to buy as much bread as I liked and eat all of it. When you are always hungry, all you think about is food.

For most of her early life, when her mother and father couldn’t get food on the black market, she and her family lived off things like grass, flowers and grasshoppers. She and her sister would often argue who could eat more if they had the chance: “I could eat a hundred loaves of bread!” “No, I could eat a mountain of loaves!” They never once were full and, therefore, had not even once tested the limits of their own stomachs. And it often took her over thirty minutes most mornings to walk straight due to the dizziness and brain fog, such was the state of her constant hunger. “That's all any of us wanted: just to eat.”

She was once rushed to the hospital as a kid and would never forget what she witnessed next. Since there were no indoor bathrooms, Yeonmi used the outhouse, outside the hospital. And it was when she walked outside the hospital that she saw heaping piles of bodies, “stacked like wood.” What was more disturbing for Yeonmi than just catching sight of the bodies (which wasn’t uncommon in North Korea), was noticing the rats that were feasting on these corpses... and at the same time the children feasting on the rats. These North Korean kids would catch the rats (that were considered a delicacy in their starving country) and eat them — many times raw. Yet the rats were often disease-ridden, and throughout her time at the hospital she saw many of the kids who were eating the rats end up in the outdoor pile… becoming food, once again, for the rats to feast on. Such was the circle of death in North Korea. And It was in her time in the hospital that she realized she had to escape this ‘District 12,’ if there was any hope of survival.

When she was thirteen, she and her mother learned of an escape route into China — a land that was whispered to have “so much rice that you were allowed to eat a whole bowl by yourself.” So they immediately departed. But little did they know the escape route was really leading them to one of the most unsafe environments in existence today: the dark and treacherous underworld of sex trafficking. This escape route that seemed to be a freeway to “fullness” was really a highway to another needs-deprived hell that was paved by undercover traffickers who lured North Korean women through the promise of food and freedom only to throw them to the lions. And when Yeonmi and her mother reached China they were immediately split, and her mother was sold on the black market for the equivalent of a little less than two thousand U.S. dollars.

Yet, because of her beauty, Yeonmi’s trafficker fell in love with her. And, by some massive miracle, he eventually allowed her to locate her mother and escape the affectionless abyss of sex-trafficking. After escaping, Yeonmi and her mother could have chosen to live hidden away as ‘illegals’ in Chinese society, always hungry and unsafe, however, Yeonmi said, I felt [a]… hunger burning in me, one that told me there was more to life than just surviving

And not long after their escape from trafficking, they achieved the seemingly impossible. Yeonmi and her mother successfully escaped into the country of Mongolia (through the brutal and sub-zero temperatures of the Gobi Desert), making it into the safety of the South Korean embassy. They were finally free.

Yeonmi vividly remembered the first time she encountered bags of food almost as big as she was. This was a place where she was finally able to live out her childhood dream of eating “a mountain of loaves.” At the age of 19, she was only 60 pounds when she made it into South Korea. 

And once Yeonmi was free she began to experience a desire bubbling up from deep within her. Something quite different and new. Once her heart was unfettered from the starvation and danger that permeated her early life, she began to come into contact with what she now believes is at the heart of all human motivation: our programming for love. Reflecting on her surreal lived experience, Yeonmi said:

In the center of everything is love. And I didn’t know what love was [at] any time in my life. People ask me if you could be on North Korean television, what would you tell them? I think I would tell them I love you. They might not even know what I’m saying…. I didn’t know what it was. Everything we do, we do for love…. The point of life is love. I did not know that.

Next Article: Programmed for Love - Part 2

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