Mother fled North Korea… to stand for election as a Tory councillor

From sex slave… to the bravest politician in Britain! It’s a humbling story of courage and survival against the odds: how this mother fled prison, savagery and abuse in North Korea… to stand for election as a Tory councillor

  • Jihyun Park, 52, who lives in Bury, is standing as a Conservative councillor
  • She arrived in Britain 13 years ago, after fleeing the land of her birth North Korea
  • Mother-of-three endured sexual slavery and lost both her parents and siblings

As the clock struck midnight on that bone- chillingly winter night, Jihyun Park and her younger brother ran for their lives across the frozen river towards the border.

Behind them, they could hear gunfire from the soldiers gathered on the bank — bullets flying around them as they fled.

‘They were shouting “Stop, stop”, and firing their guns — but we just carried on running,’ Jihyun recalls. ‘I don’t know how we did it, but we managed to escape.’

Today, Jihyun, 52, a mother of three, is talking to me from her neat suburban home in her adopted hometown of Bury, Greater Manchester, where she is standing as a Conservative councillor in April’s local elections. Her involvement in politics is just the latest chapter in her extraordinary story — one that surely cannot be matched in drama, courage or suffering by anyone else seeking elected office in Britain.

Jihyun Park, 52, (pictured) who lives in Bury, Greater Manchester, is standing as a Conservative councillor in April’s local elections

For Jihyun has endured not only sexual slavery, but was captured and imprisoned, left for dead in the street with a life-threatening wound, and lost both her parents and siblings — all in the course of making not one, but two attempts to flee the land of her birth, North Korea.

Few who try to escape from the country’s iron borders live to tell the tale. But, against all the odds, Jihyun survived, arriving in Britain 13 years ago to build a new life.

In recounting the horrors she experienced, she is at pains to emphasise that she is only doing so to show there is always hope.

She aligned herself with the Conservative Party, she says, because she sees it as a champion of ‘freedom, justice and happy family life’, in stark contrast to the darkness and oppression of the regime she left behind.

‘My story is difficult to tell, but standing here, in this free country I love, shows that dictators don’t kill our strength or our hope. They take everything they can off us, but they cannot take that,’ she says.

A steely determination shines through Jihyun’s kindly face. ‘At home, children, families, neighbours were dying in the street’, she says. ‘You can’t imagine how terrible it was. For a long time there was only one word on my mind: Survival.’

Born in the late 1960s in the northern coastal city of Chongjin, Jihyun and her younger brother Cheol Min were raised in a bleak, shut-away world where the government broadcasts endless propaganda about the West.

‘We played war games as that was all we knew. We didn’t have any kind of toys, so we threw stones, playing American and North Korean soldiers,’ she says.

Jihyun said her father feared his children would die of starvation and begged her to escape North Korea with her younger brother Cheol Min. Pictured: Jihyun with her 12-year-old daughter

Food was scarce even before the advent of a four-year famine that engulfed the country in the 1990s.

‘I saw my uncle dying in front of my eyes. He didn’t look human because there was only his bones and the skin,’ she says.

Fearing that his children would also die of starvation, her father begged Jihyun to escape, and to take Cheol Min with her. He had already been beaten brutally for trying to leave the army.

‘My father didn’t know whether this journey would be successful or not, but he had hope, and that was something we didn’t have if we stayed,’ she says. ‘I left my father ill and alone — to this day I do not know what happened to him.’

Aged 29, she and Cheol Min made their perilous midnight journey over the border to China knowing nothing of what might greet them.

Having escaped the North Korean gunmen, they knocked on the door of the first house they came to. ‘The owner let us in and gave us food.

‘I couldn’t believe it because, at home, we had been told the Chinese were poor. He was kind to us, but said it was not safe to stay because of the Chinese police.’

The man put them in touch with a ‘friend’ he said would help them — in reality a trafficker who sold North Korean refugees into slavery. ‘This man told me I must marry a Chinese man. I refused, but then I thought, “if I marry this man, I will save my younger brother”,’ Jihyun recalls. ‘So I said yes.’

She was sold for around £550 to a local farmer — only to be told that her brother was not included in the deal. She weeps as she recalls how Cheol Min insisted that she leave him behind, both of them knowing he would be deported back to North Korea. ‘I couldn’t save my brother,’ she says. ‘I still don’t know if he has died or if he’s alive.’

A neighbour reported Jihyun to the Chinese authorities when her son Chol was five, leading her to be deported back to North Korea. Pictured: Jihyun with her daughter, husband and son

Her Chinese ‘husband’ was a gambling addict and alcoholic. She was expected to work on his farm, keep house and provide sex. ‘It is the same for all North Korean women trapped in China. They don’t see us as people,’ she says. ‘His family would not even eat with me.’

Within a few months, she was horrified to discover she was pregnant.

‘My life was slavery and I didn’t want a child to be born into that,’ she pauses. ‘But then I changed my mind. I thought maybe this child will give me hope. I had lost all my family, but this child could give me a dream of another life.’

She gave birth alone to a son she named Chol — meaning iron.

‘When I held him — it is hard to describe,’ she says. ‘Finally, I had a family again.’

Yet here newfound motherhood was fraught with risk: when Chol was just three months old, Jihyun was threatened by a man to whom her ‘husband’ owed money.

‘He wanted to take my son, so I stood up holding a knife and I said to him, “if you touch my son, I will kill you”. I didn’t manage to save my younger brother, so I would do everything to save my son.’

From then on, she carried her son on her back so he was never away from her side.

But, when Chol was five, a neighbour reported her to the Chinese authorities in return for a financial reward. Jiyhun was arrested at home by policemen and they didn’t even let her say a proper goodbye to her son.

‘I begged them, but they didn’t care. I didn’t even get the chance to say “Mummy is coming back”, so Chol didn’t know what happened. He didn’t understand.’

Jihyun (pictured) was thrown out to die on the streets, after developing an infection on her foot while at a female-only labour camp

Deported back to North Korea, Jihyun was sent to a high security prison, crammed into a tiny room with both male and female prisoners sharing only one toilet.

‘My life was very dark,’ she says. ‘Inside there are no windows. We couldn’t wash our bodies and the women were given nothing for their sanitary needs. The smell from the toilets, from everything — it was disgusting.’

From there, she was sent to a female-only labour camp, where she was forced to walk barefoot over glass and stones.

‘Our feet were often bleeding but the guards didn’t care — they also didn’t see us as human,’ she recalls.

Early on, she cut her foot so badly she developed an infection. ‘When I woke up my leg was so swollen that I couldn’t walk, but the guards said I was lazy and accused me of lying.’

As the days wore on, the infection spread: ‘Yellow disgusting water came out and my temperature was 39 or 40 degrees. My hair and skin was changing. The others around me said I smelled like a dead person.’

Jihyun was then thrown out to die on the streets, but was found by a kindly stranger who came across her near-lifeless body. ‘He treated me with herbs. I don’t know what he used, but that’s what saved me,’ she says.

As soon as she could walk again, she resolved to cross back into China to find her son.

First, she went back to her parents’ flat but they had disappeared and she could find no trace of them, so she sought out another trafficker to help her cross the border again.

They waded together across the frigid waters of the Tumen river and over the mountains into China. Due to her heavy limp and the freezing conditions, it took them 24 hours.

Jihyun resolved to flee to Mongolia, and met her husband Kwang while attempting to cross the border. Pictured: Jihyun with her daughter and son

‘I knew I might be sold by the trafficker into slavery again, but I had to see my son,’ she says.

But the trafficker, who certainly intended to sell her, was grateful for the way she successfully fooled a taxi driver — who they suspected was spying for the authorities — into thinking they were Chinese hitchhikers.

And once they were safe, he felt pity and allowed her to contact her son. Jihyun was finally reunited with Chol, who had been abandoned by her ‘husband’ to be cared for by his paternal grandparents.

She was horrified by the state she found him in.

‘He was so skinny, and his clothes were really dirty. This was their grandchild. They hated me because I was from North Korea — but this child was only five and they hated him, too.’

Determined to find a way out of China, Jihyun resolved to flee to Mongolia, although getting there required another dangerous border crossing through heavily patrolled wire fences.

Making the attempt with a larger group, Jihyun and Chol scrambled through a hole in the first fence, only to fall behind, hampered by Jihyun’s injured leg and Chol’s youth.

When they saw a man approaching them in the distance Jihyun says she was terrified, fearing it was the Chinese police.

But, instead, it was a fellow North Korean called Kwang who had turned back to help them. ‘He saved us,’ she says simply.

Kwang would go on to become her husband, but the trio faced more hardship first: stranded for three days in the freezing Mongolian desert with no food or water they had no option but to return to China.

‘It was that or die in the desert,’ she says — so they decided to travel to Beijing where they both found work in a market.

After being given refugee status, Jihyun (pictured) was offered a choice of countries in which to settle including South Korea, America and Europe 

In 2006, Jihyun gave birth to the couple’s son, and the following year they were introduced to a Korean-American pastor who referred the family to the United Nations.

Finally, they were given refugee status and offered a choice of countries in which to settle: South Korea, America, or somewhere in Europe.

‘We knew South Korea was dangerous and we had grown up believing America was an enemy country.

‘But, for me, England was kind of romantic, with the men in their hats, the ladies in a dress. So, we chose that,’ she says with a smile.

One can only imagine the culture shock when Jihyun and Kwang touched down at Heathrow in January 2008, speaking no English, and greeted by scenes that were a world away from the Victorian pictures they had in mind.

But she stresses that she is forever grateful for the welcome her family received here.

The family settled in Bury, where Jihyun also gave birth to a daughter, now 12. Chol, her eldest, is now 21 and studying accounting and finance at a London university.

As her confidence flourished, Jihyun began work helping fellow Korean defectors who had come to the UK and started to campaign for the rights of all North Koreans.

It is work that has led to her being recognised by Amnesty International UK, who last year gave her an award for bravery.

‘Living here you cannot imagine what it is like in North Korea. It is a black hole,’ she says. ‘It is why I continue to fight the dictators — because I have already made my dreams come true in the UK. But I know there are so many others who are left behind.’

It is one reason she has chosen to enter the political fray here, too.

She laughs as she recalls her amazement at our democratic process. ‘The first time I saw Parliament the MPs were shouting and I didn’t understand why, or why there were different parties, because I had lived in a country without any of that.’

She feels the same way about her personal liberty.

‘Until I got here, I never really knew about happiness — because in North Korea you are only allowed to express political emotions, not personal — they are only for the dictators,’ she says.

‘But in this country, I found out that, for me, happiness is having my family at the dinner table, and my children smiling. That is a big emotion for me.’

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