How One Woman Rebuilt Her Life After Escaping North Korea

Very few people escape North Korea once—let alone twice. But Jiyhun Park, a survivor of sex trafficking and forced labor camps, is determined to shed light on the regime's human rights abuses.
June 29, 2018, 1:59pm
Photo courtesy of Jihyun Park

When I meet Jihyun Park in a nondescript central London meeting room, she is disarmingly cheerful. The upbeat middle-aged woman (Park is 49) in a navy suit and sparkly diamanté brooch frequently breaks into laughter, even as she’s recounting how she endured some of the most appalling suffering that can be inflicted on a human being: Park is a North Korean defector and survivor of sex trafficking and forced labor camps, and one of only a handful of people who can testify first-hand to the brutality of her country’s regime.

Park is in London to speak at the screening of Little Pyongyang, a stylized new documentary following North Korean defector, Joong-wha Choi, as he struggles to adapt to everyday British life in a south London suburb. Like Choi, Park is part of the tiny community of North Korean survivors currently living in the UK. And like Choi, Park has seen and experienced a reality that those outside North Korea hear little about.

Born in the city of Chŏngjin, which is known as the “City of Iron” due to its industrial past, Park remembers an idyllic childhood. “My town is very beautiful,” she says, “because on the one side is the sea, and the other is mountains, and so when I was a child we’d play in the mountains or the sea.” Like children around the world, Park played with whatever she could scavenge, like stones or sticks. Her preferred sport? War games featuring her country's arch geopolitical nemeses: South Korea, or America. “America would always lose!” Park jokes.

Like many survivors of despotic regimes, Park can’t pinpoint exactly when the brainwashing began, other to say it started in her earliest childhood. “We thought that South Korea was a very poor country where they wore horrible clothes,” she remembers. “And we always hated America!”

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After leaving school, Park worked as a high-school teacher, and was loyal to her regime. But things changed in 1996, when she saw her uncle die of malnutrition before her eyes after the North Korean government stopped the rice rations that many relied upon to survive. “Then, I started to have a lot of questions,” she remembers. “But I still didn’t speak out.” Alongside the fearsome apparatus of the North Korean state, Park was also scared of her own brother—an apparatchik who was loyal to the regime.

But after her younger brother was beaten half to death by the military police over a minor infraction, Park resolved to escape. They crossed the border into China, where Park was separated from her brother and trafficked into the house of a Chinese farmer. Her brother's whereabouts remain unknown, although Park believes he was most likely sent back to North Korea to near-certain death. “That was 18 years ago, now,” she says softly. “I still don't know if he's alive or dead. But I never give up hope, because I didn't see his dead body. I'm still waiting.”

The Chinese farmer forced Park to toil on his fields. “They told me, 'We’ve borrowed a lot of money to buy you, so now you have to pay back this money,'” she remembers.

She became pregnant by the man who enslaved her. “I was filled with this thought that the child was my last family,” Park says. “I wanted to keep the child. I thought, Maybe he will fulfill my dreams and hopes.” She wore baggy clothes to conceal the pregnancy for fear that she’d be pressured to have an abortion, and continued working as a slave laborer right until she delivered her son with the aid of a local midwife.

“I was really happy, because I had a family again,” Park remembers. But her son’s father was a gambling addict who wanted to sell his son to pay his debts. For the first time in her adult life, Park fought back. She confronted him with a knife. “I said, ‘If you touch my son, I’ll kill you,’” she says, smiling. But other forces would separate Park from her son, when he was only five. A neighbor reported her to the Chinese police, and she was deported to North Korea.

“I never got a chance to kiss or hug my son, or tell him, ‘Mom will come back,’” Park says. “He was all alone in China, and I was sent back to North Korea.”

Back in North Korea, Park was thrown into one of North Korea’s squalid jails. There were no windows, electricity, or light. They were fed one meal a day. Dozens of prisoners shared one fetid toilet. Throughout it all, she thought only of returning to her son. “In prison, your mental state is very important,” Park advises. “If you think about food all the time, you won’t survive. You need to think about strong things to survive.”

She was released into a forced labor camp. Every day, they’d pick corn and beans barefoot, to impede any escape attempts. “Even if you stepped on glass, you’d continue to work.” Park managed to escape and got herself trafficked back into China to find her son. In a high-stakes car journey there, Park persuaded a Chinese taxi driver—they frequently work as spies for the government, turning in defectors for a financial rewards—that she was a native-born Chinese citizen. Eventually, she reunited with her child and crossed the border into Mongolia, winding their way through Europe before arriving in the UK.

Now, Park is passionate about sharing her experience of North Korean life to those in the West who are ignorant about the reality of the lived experience of those suffering under the regime.

“I was born under a dictator and lived in slavery,” she tells me. “Here in the UK, I’ve found freedom and happiness. I’m in heaven. This is heaven.”

Photo by Dominique Murphy - de Neef.

And Park is scornful of those who exculpate or ignore the North Korean government’s atrocities against its people—like Donald Trump, who downplayed North Korea’s human rights abuses in a press conference earlier this month. “A lot of other people have done some really bad things,” Trump said breezily when asked to comment on Kim Jong Un’s genocidal behavior. “[He's] a tough guy,” he added.

I ask Park what she thinks of Trump and Jong-Un’s recent commitment to a denuclearized Korean peninsula. “A nuclear accord is not peace!” Park scoffs. “There are still concentration camps in North Korea. People are still starving, and being tortured. So why do world leaders always talk about peace? There’s no peace without the people, and the people don’t have peace when they’re dying.”

As one of very few to survive and escape the North Korean regime, Park feels beholden to keep sharing her story—even if doing so can be traumatizing. “When I tell my story, and I talk about being in labor camps, while I’m speaking, I’m back in the camp,” Park explains. “But I can’t stop, because for 25 million people, this remains their life. I’m a survivor and eyewitness. So I can’t be silent.”