JI-HYUN Park left the totalitarian state ten years ago, and hopes to go back one day to teach North Koreans about their human rights. Tom Woods finds out more…
With the plight of Syrian refugees constantly covered by the media in recent months, it’s possible to lose sight of the world’s other afflicted areas.
Perhaps none are worse affected than the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – more commonly referred to as North Korea.
The country bounded by China and Russia to the north, as well as South Korea, has been likened to a ‘big prison’ and is in the midst of a totalitarian dictatorship, with strict penalties for those who oppose leader Kim Jong-un and his regime.
Nobody knows this better than Ji-hyun Park.
Now settled in Bury with her husband and three children, Ji-hyun had to escape the country of her birth not once, but twice, just to have the chance to make it to the United Kingdom – or as she refers to it, the “home of peace.”
In the mid-1990s North Korea was plunged into a famine caused by an economic collapse which, in-turn damaged agriculture across the land.
There wasn’t enough food to feed their then-22 million population and Ji-hyun believes that three million people died as a result of starvation – though official estimates state that is could have caused anywhere between 240,000 and 3,500,000 deaths.
“Many people died of starvation and we would usually find dead bodies in the street and at the train station.
“In 1997 my father became ill and my mother left home because she wanted to earn money outside. In our home was me and my [younger] brother, too.”
Her father’s last wish was for her to save her brother, because he knew that if they stayed in North Korea, they would likely starve to death.
My last memory was my father telling me to save my brother, so we decided to escape. So I left home with my brother and left my father alone to stay in a cold room. I was 30.
“I wanted to survive and stay with my brother. I was told that if I go to China I could find a good job, and the first time I believed that.
“But once in China I was human trafficked, and I was separated from my brother after my brother also departed North Korea. It has been 15 years now and I still don’t know if my brother is a survivor, or died.”
When she arrived, she was auctioned off and sold to a Chinese farmer for 5000 yuan, equivalent to just over £500 today.
She was forced into marriage, raped and impregnated. Ji-hyun gave birth in 1999 to a son she named Chol, which means ‘iron’ in English.
She was essentially a slave, and the farmer threatened to report her to the authorities if she disobeyed him.
Unfortunately for Ji-hyun, that nightmare came true when she was reported by local villagers, separated from her son and sent back to North Korea.
Deemed an economic defector, she was sent to a correctional labour camp in her hometown of Chongjin in the Songpyong district. Those caught defecting to South Korea were labelled political prisoners, and were put in political prison camps where they would serve lifetime sentences.
“In that time many people escaped North Korea due to economic problems. They just wanted to eat some food and to go to China. But every departure from North Korea is a political problem.”
The prisoners were forced to work hard labour for long hours, and were regularly punished for trivial incidents.
“If you got caught trying to wash your sanitary towel, you were ordered to wear it on your head, dripping blood and all, and beg for forgiveness.”
Inside the camp, Ji-hyun contracted tetanus in her leg, which left her unable to work, or even walk, and it led to her being discharged and allowed to return home.
Injured and missing her son, she decided to return to China, and went through the trafficking process once again.
“I escaped again and went after my son, but I knew I couldn’t spend a long time in China, so I decided to go to South Korea.
After a year back in China, Ji-hyun’s determination resulted in her being reunited with Chol. But their journey was far from over, with the Chinese government finding out about her whereabouts a looming possibility. South Korea was the next planned destination.
“Our journey was very dangerous. We decided to go to Mongolia and go to the South Korean embassy there.”
To get to Mongolia they had to climb over the fence at the border with China. There were nine North Koreans making a break for it, but Ji-hyun couldn’t manage to get her and Chol up and over the two metre-high fence.
It was a risky move, with police frequently patrolling the area.
“Everyone else already got out and went to the Mongolia border, but me and my son were still in China at the Chinese border.
“The police had come back, but then someone came and helped me and my son [get past the fence]. That man is now my husband.”
The man – a fellow North Korean – cut a hole in the fence to allow them to pass, and they soon made their way over the border. But the trip was unsuccessful.
“Mongolia is a desert, so after three days we couldn’t find any person in Mongolia. We didn’t have any food or any water, so my son is thirsty. He was only five years old, and hungry, and cold, so we couldn’t spend any more days in Mongolia, so we came back to China again.
“That was in 2005, so I stayed in China two years and after, in 2007, a South Korean pastor helped us to UN officials in China. After that we were able to go to the UK.”
The government gave her housing in Bury, and provided her family with enough resources to get by.
“I arrived in the UK in 2008, and it was the first time I went to the home of peace. I didn’t know what a refugee was, but when I got a refugee visa and the government gave me an ID card. I was crying.
“The ID card is a small card, but I didn’t get this card in China. So I was crying because that ID card saved me and my family.
“So I could only say thank you very much! Thank you! I was just crying. It was the first time I was allowed to have emotions, because in North Korea we never felt all of the emotions.
“In North Korea the only emotions are happiness and hatred.
So in 2010, for the first time, I found happiness when I was able to sit around a table with my family together eating dinner, and see my children’s smiling faces.
“I’m just very happy. If I didn’t become a refugee I still don’t know what would have happened.”
Ji-hyun was able to adapt to the new country, but found difficulty understanding aspects of the English culture – such as discussions about football, music and actors in the media.
In North Korea, they have only one television station and one newspaper which produce state propaganda, and mainly focus on past leaders Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and current ruler Kim Jong-un.
“At first the language and the culture was difficult. But that was not too much of a problem. We didn’t know English, but that was okay, because we knew we could learn English. We didn’t know the English culture, we were able to join in and share their culture, so it was not too difficult.
“Big difference in North Korea is we never heard about the freedom and human rights. But here everyone is outside the campaign, they want to build equality and they need freedom.
“Here everyone is free and they have equality and freedom and they are always talking about the big issues.”
Ji-hyun now works for the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea as an outreach and project coordinator, and as part of her job meets with and helps North Korean refugees.
At the beginning of this year, she did a documentary with Amnesty International entitled ‘The Other Interview’ – a play on the recent controversial film by Columbia Pictures, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco.
She lives at home with her three children and husband, who also works part-time as well as caring for their kids.
It is amazing that she even able survived the ordeal she was put under, and it’s a testament to her fortitude that she is able to relay information about her own personal experiences and educate others about the atrocities in her home nation.
Ji-hyun spoke in Hamburg, Germany last Friday, December 10, on International Human Rights Day to advocate the rights of the North Korean people.
She hopes to one day return to North Korea to educate the people about their human rights, and to tell them about freedom. She is taking a step towards that goal by planning to become a human rights lawyer.
“North Korea is the most isolated country on the planet and we can’t imagine it in this country.
“North Korea is a big prison country, and they don’t even know what are human rights and what is freedom.
“In the future my dream is to become a human rights lawyer and when one day North Korea changes, or that there is a unification. I just want to be able to teach them about what their human rights are. Teaching North Koreans about their human rights and freedom.
“In the future the unification is our reach for the Korean nations. So one day we’ll do that – a unification. Well, I hope so.”
By: Tom Woods