The gangrene was ripping through Ji-hyun Park’s leg. She was so close to death that the guards threw her out of the camp, after which she was trafficked to China for the second time in her life. This time she would make it all the way to the UK.
The experiences she has lived are of an incomprehensibly difficult life. She is one of few people who has managed to escape North Korea twice. Earlier this week, I had the chance to hear her story and speak with her in a talk hosted by Oxford International Relations Society.
“My story is the story of every woman in North Korea”, Ji-hyun accentuated at the beginning. She first defected from North Korea in 1998 with her brother after he was almost beaten to death for leaving the military. With their father’s help and urging, they made it to China.
Soon, she was separated from her brother and forced to marry a Chinese farmer by the human traffickers who got them across the border. Later, Ji-hyun and her arranged husband, who treated her like a physical and sexual slave, had a child, who was proclaimed stateless by the Chinese government. After neighbours discovered her identity, she was deported back to a North Korean labour camp and separated from her child. In 2008, she finally managed to escape North Korea permanently, reunite with her son, and settle in the UK.
Sharing her story to students of Oxford University was obviously an emotional experience for Ji-hyun, which showed both in her speech and the reaction of an enrapt, hundred-person audience.
Ji-hyun’s talk was filled with anecdotes of the horrifying conditions and human rights violations in North Korea. She described how she wished to hide her past when she came here. She told the hall how she couldn’t look people in the eye because, back in North Korea, guards considered eyecontact disrespectful.
Someone from the audience asked whether Ji-hyun finds anything in North Korea better than in the UK. Her immediate and definite answer was “No.”
When I got a chance to meet with her after the talk and ask her about her day-to-day life before she defected, I learnt that her experience had been immensely inhumane.
Her daily routine consisted of 20-hour shifts of hard, agricultural labour in horrific conditions. While there, she and three other women would regularly have to push tonnes of agricultural product in a cart.
“We were treated like animals”, Ji-hyun said. “The hygiene was terrible and we never had the chance to wash up”, Ji-hyun said, highlighting the difficulty of being a woman in these conditions. “I never thought about the future”.
They often did not have food, but would be told they can be fed on political ideas when actual food runs out.
It was here that she developed gangrene and nearly died after a severe beating by the guards and a festering infection due to unhygienic standards. She managed to convince the doctors not to amputate and was released to an uncle.
She’s said in the past that she only began to relax and plan for the future when her plane touched down at Heathrow after years of limbo, escape and trial.
Through her time in prison camps and early life in North Korea, she received no information about the outside world. “North Korea is closed”, Ji-hyun noted simply.
In many way, the state exists essentially separately from the rest of the world. “It would be important to send reliable information to North Korea”, she continued. “Today, many people in North Korea do understand that the government is problematic”.
Ji-hyun also emphasized how the change has to happen within North Korea and its people, “North Koreans must stand up and fight the North Korean government”.
Lack of information on the country extended to Ji-hyun’s knowledge of her family’s whereabouts. Ji-hyun still doesn’t know what happened to her father, whom she had to leave behind, when she first defected. On top of that, when she got sent back to a North Korean labour camp, she also couldn’t contact her child until she left the country again.
Sharing information has another big role in Ji-hyun’s life. When asked how to best raise awareness of the human rights violations in North Korea, Ji-hyun answer was: “We need to share our story”.
She stresses that those who have managed to get out need to spread the word of their experiences in order to raise awareness for North Korean people still in the country. Today, Ji-hyun works as a human rights activist for the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea and is developing their outreach program.
With a line out the door and a big crowd lingering behind to have a chat with Ji-hyun after the talk, it’s obvious people are interested in knowing about somewhere like North Korea and spreading its realities, as she does, is possible. In addition, Ji-hyun’s story sparked many questions from the audience ranging from censorship in North Korea to YouTuber Fun For Louis’s recent videos about the country.
Noting the increased interest in human rights violations from reporters, Ji-hyun lamented that many of these journalists were insensitive, wishing they would treat her more compassionately when asking for interviews about North Korea.
“We are also people”, she said simply.
Today, Ji-hyun has finally had the chance to experience happiness in moments many of us shamelessly take for granted, like a comfortable life in Manchester with her family.
“When I first came to UK, the most shocking thing was couples holding hands in public, kissing even”, Ji-hyun said. “It was shocking—and also amazing”. Ji-hyun described how her time living in England starkly contrasted with her experiences in North Korea. For example, public displays of affection were unheard of and it is deemed proper to exhibit very little emotion, even to one’s own family. It’s taken her time to get used to the cultural shift, but it’s getting easier.
“Nowadays, sometimes we even hold hands in public with my husband when we are shopping.”
In the end, Ji-hyun learned English to get closer with her kids. “One day my children brought home a letter from their school and homework, but I couldn’t help them”, Ji-hyun said. “I decided that I want to learn the language, as I couldn’t show emotion to my children otherwise.”
It is these kinds of remarks about happiness and emotion, which makes it so hard to imagine what kind of background Ji-hyun has. Yet, after hearing her story, it’s hard not be stricken by her composure and strength as she has waded through such difficult times only to make it out and, to use her words, share the story.