Park Ji-hyun still remembers the feeling when she first arrived in the UK in 2008. Having fled repression and poverty in North Korea and human trafficking in China, she was glad to find a refuge, but also nervous to start a new life thousands of kilometers away from home.
“Many people welcomed me when I got here,” Park told The Korea Herald in a recent interview via Zoom. “Back then, I couldn’t fully grasp the meaning of the word ‘welcome,’ but just hearing it made me tear up. Now I realize it meant everything -- it was a warm welcome into the new opportunity, freedom and happiness.”
Thanks to the kindness of the British people, Park was able to settle down with her family and make Bury, Greater Manchester, England, her new home, she said. And now, 13 years later, she is running for councilor in her adopted hometown to repay the people who embraced her family with open arms in the hour of their direst need.
“Even in this country, there are people who don’t have a voice, and who are waiting for their voices to be heard,” she said. “I believe it is my calling and my duty to be a voice for those who are voiceless.
“Also, this is a way to express my gratitude to the British people,” she said.
The 52-year-old is believed to be the first defector from the North to run for office outside of the Korean Peninsula. Park is standing as a candidate for the Conservative Party, which she joined in 2016.
She is aware that many people will question her alignment with the center-right party, which is viewed as more anti-immigration than others. “What is important to me is freedom, justice, family life and happiness, the very beliefs valued by the Conservatives,” she said. “These values are what North Korean people have always desired.”
If elected in May, Park, formerly a teacher in North Korea, would like to focus on bolstering the town’s education system and its environment. She believes educating young people is critical for the country’s future and its prosperity.
At the same time she would like to address human rights, based on her experience as a human rights advocate and her unique plight as a North Korean defector.
“Human rights in North Korea is not limited to the country alone, but it’s a global issue,” she said. “Extending our hands to those in need is a calling for the people of free lands. It is important for the growing generation to have awareness and know who needs our help.”
“My silence today could infringe on my human rights in the future.”
She also hopes the race -- which is expected to be tough as her region is traditionally a stronghold of the opposition Liberal Democrats -- will give hope to the people of North Korea and defectors around the world.
“When I cast my first-ever ballot in the UK in 2015, I really felt that I was finally a citizen of a free country,” she said. “I hope my candidacy can show North Korean citizens what being free really means, that everyone is entitled to the right to freely choose, regardless of their background and gender.” Perilous journeys
When Park first fled her hometown of Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, it was 1998 and North Korea was in the midst of a deadly famine known as the “Arduous March.” It was her ailing father’s dying wish that she escape the country with her younger brother, who was in danger for trying to leave the military.
Leaving their father behind, the siblings took a perilous journey and crossed the frozen Tumen River into China. Once she arrived in China, Park was tricked by human traffickers and sold to a Chinese man for a forced marriage. She was also separated from her brother, who was later arrested and repatriated back to North Korea. Still today she doesn’t know where her brother is, but hasn’t given up the hope that he is alive somewhere.
Park gave birth to a son by the Chinese man, but explained that she was treated “like a slave.”
“I only found solace and hope in my son,” she said.
In 2004 she was arrested by Chinese authorities and deported back to North Korea -- forced to leave her 5-year-old son behind without saying goodbye.
China does not recognize North Koreans as refugees, but considers them illegal economic migrants and repatriates them when they are caught. Upon returning to North Korea they often face harsh punishment, including incarceration, forced labor and even death.
After being deported, Park was sent to a detention camp and forced to work from dawn to evening with bare hands and no shoes. After several months of what she calls “harrowing, unspeakable” confinement, Park was thrown out when she developed gangrene in her leg. The guards did not want her to die in the camp.
“At one point, I could see the bone in my own foot,” she said. But Park didn’t wait for it to heal. Wrapping her infected leg with a plastic bag and still limping, she contacted a broker and made another arduous journey to China to find her son. She eventually found him.
After their reunion in China, Park made multiple attempts to defect to South Korea through its embassy and consulates, but she failed each time because they were heavily guarded by Chinese security personnel.
With no luck in China, Park journeyed to cross the border and enter Mongolia on foot with her son and a group of other defectors. But due to her health and the presence of her young son, she fell behind the group and was in danger of getting caught by Chinese guards.
But a man saved Park and her son. The man was part of the same group of defectors traveling together, and had gone back to find her.
“He is my husband now,” she said. “It was really the first time for me to be taken care of and realize what love is.”
The group reached Mongolia, but for three days in the Mongolian desert they found no food or water. Fearing her son could die, Park returned with her family to Beijing and they lived in hiding until 2007, when they met a Christian pastor who referred them to the United Nations.
Her family -- now a family of five with three children -- were given refugee status and arrived in the UK in 2008. “Why did you abandon me?”
At first, Park wanted to forget the past and begin anew in the UK. She thought she had suffered enough, and recounting the horrendous time was itself painful. But some years later, a question from her son changed everything.
“He asked me, ‘Mom, why did you abandon me back then?’” she said. “I was utterly shocked, because I didn’t realize he had remembered that time.
“For the first time, I saw someone else’s pain,” said Park. “I thought I was the biggest victim of human rights abuses, but my kid was hurt too, and so were others.”
That was when Park started speaking out about her experiences and became vocal about human rights.
“If surviving witnesses like us stay quiet, other victims will be silenced,” she said. “If I keep silent, those who are suffering cannot become visible. And that’s why I have to keep speaking out for the voiceless.”
She is now at the forefront of raising awareness about human rights violations in North Korea, with a focus on women and children.
One of the areas that concerns her the most is the tens of thousands of stateless children in China born to North Korean mothers -- women like her who fled the regime, fell victim to traffickers and were sold to Chinese men.
“With no citizenship, the children have no access to education, protection and health care,” she said. “These children did nothing wrong to deserve this kind of life, stripped of their basic rights.”
When these China-born defectors arrive in South Korea, they face another kind of discrimination in the South, she said, as they lack full access to government benefits for defectors.
Park urged the South Korean government to address human rights violations in North Korea.
“It’s frustrating to see how the North Korean human rights agenda shifts depending on the politics in the South,” she said. “Human rights is universal and should not be used as a diplomatic tool. Doing so amounts to regarding North Korean citizens as invisible.”
She also voiced hope that South Koreans will embrace defectors from the North and turn away from prejudice. “The only thing that’s left for these defectors who fled their homes is language,” she said.
“They lost their family and friends and they need people who can communicate. And that’s something South Koreans can do, communicate.”
By Ahn Sung-mi (email@example.com