CW: Mention of torture and abuse

Within the past few months, rumours claiming the death of North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Un, have circled our news feeds. When it was announced that he had since been sighted in public, the media commented on the “thunderous applause” he was met with as he appeared in front of North Koreans at the opening of a fertiliser factory near Pyongyang. Similarly, during the Trump-Kim summit of 2018, North Koreans were recorded saying, “I couldn’t stop myself from getting excited when I saw our respected leader on TV. By following our beloved leader, who strives tirelessly for the sake of the nation and the people, our entire staff shares the view that we should achieve more in our work and keep challenging ourselves to make him happy”, and, “I heard at work yesterday that our leader was on the way to a distant foreign country. So even though today is my day off, I’m on my way to work to please our leader”.

When the media does shift their attention to the North Korean people, their representation of North Koreans often paints them as a homogenised, brainwashed population who live naively in awe of the dynasty we know to be diabolical. The reality of the situation is much more complex, with over 100,000 refugees emigrating since the separation of the Korean peninsula in 1953. Some defect due to political discontent, such as Thae Yong Ho who made headlines for winning a constituency seat during the South Korean parliamentary elections in April, despite formerly serving as a senior diplomat under the North Korean regime. Part of his political aim has been to draw greater attention to the human rights violations being carried out systematically by the regime, in the hopes that this will humanise those who are suffering. 

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Instead of being seen as a faceless nation that willingly submits to the Kims, real stories of suffering and protest told by those who have lived under the regime should be shared. Although it is tempting to be distracted by memes about Kim Jong-Un’s haircut and his almost entertainingly tumultuous relations with Trump, these undermine the very real ordeals experienced by North Korean refugees and defectors, which should instead be the main focus of international media.

I was able to interview Jihyun Park, a North Korean refugee now living in England, about her experiences living under the regime, escaping, and being repatriated (sent back to North Korea). Willing to share her story in the hope that it sheds light on the true gravity of the plight many North Koreans and refugees face, she too commented on the role of the media. “I am usually angry with the media because they always hide peoples’ real lives.” The “media usually [displays] Kim and some Pyongyang views”, but that is not “the real North Korea.” 

Jihyun began to illustrate “the real North Korea” in her description of her hometown. Situated in North Hamgyong, a province near the Chinese border in the East, Jihyun described her home as “a beautiful place”, surrounded by sea and mountains, with a “big steel company, port and shipyard”. Jihyun was a maths teacher, and I was curious to know her daily routine. “We would wake up at 5am, 4.30am in the summer”, she tells me, “everyone would begin their day by cleaning the streets outside, and the school day would begin at 7am, and usually finish at around 8pm.” She was never able to visit Pyongyang, as travelling to other regions is not permitted without authorisation, but as a child she was able to visit her grandmother’s house in South Hamgyong, and Paektu mountain as a university student, an important cultural site often used to reinforce the legitimacy of the Kim dynasty. An active volcano, Paektu is considered sacred, and the myth is propagated that the Kims have a “Mount Paektu bloodline”. Before significant national announcements, the leader of North Korea would travel up Paektu, often on a white horse, in order to legitimise his decision to the North Korean people – a ritual last performed by Kim Jong Un in December.

So why leave? Unlike Thae Yong Ho, Jihyun admits she had little knowledge of the reality of North Korea’s political condition prior to her escape, due to the censorship of outside information. What led Jihyun to leave, like so many others, was famine. In the mid-90s, a period known as the Arduous March, or the March of Suffering, began. Lasting for four years, an estimated 3.5 million died from starvation, or related diseases, forcing a record number of North Koreans to attempt to cross the Chinese border in 1998. 

Jihyun and her brother would soon join them. With her mother having left home, and her father becoming ill, Jihyun’s family was left with no food, medicine, or “even a chunk of wood to burn for heating my brother”. Her brother’s military service had ended abruptly after he was “caught dealing gold illegally”, and he had come home, chased by military officials. Her father eventually urged her to leave. “My father said ‘Take your brother. You must leave, you must go anywhere.’ It was my father’s will. Not even observing my father’s death, I left. I will never see him again and I don’t know where he was buried. He might be buried somewhere, but I do not even know.”

Jihyun and her brother managed to cross the Eastern border into China, after being offered help by a man promising an honest job once they arrived. I asked Jihyun what her journey was like; “Once in China, I was brought to a trafficking establishment, sold to a Chinese man and separated from my brother. My brother was captured and repatriated a year later, and I still do not know if he survives. It was shameful so I tried to hide it, but it was not only my experience.” 

As Jihyun voiced, this is a common experience faced by refugees, with around 80% of North Korean women sold by human traffickers upon reaching China. “I was sold to a Chinese man for 5000 yuan (around £580). Chinese people would gather and choose who they want.” The farmer, who was from the province of Heilongjiang in the North-east, kept Jihyun in slavery for six years. During this time, she gave birth to a son. 

“He was nameless and nationless because I was a foreigner without legal status. In the DPRK, a child with a foreign parent cannot be born and is killed without question. The Chinese government does not acknowledge the existence of a person born from a North Korean mother, so the child grows up without a name, access to education, and the right of movement.” 

Jihyun’s son was stranded in this limbo, alongside around 30,000 others thought to be victims to the same status. In April 2004, following years of manual labour and constant intimidation, Jihyun was arrested and sent to Yeonbyun prison in China. “The cell was full of North Korean people. I found out that the prison was specially built to hold North Koreans.” After a week at Yeonbyun, Jihyun was repatriated and sent to a prison camp in North Korea.

The prison camps in North Korea are notorious for their systematic implementation of human rights violations, including torture, executions and infanticide. Both re-education camps and political prison camps exist, and both bear high mortality rates. Jihyun recounted her initial thoughts. “Even though I was sent to North Korea as a criminal, there was a joy of coming back to my hometown, but it soon changed into despair. I may have thought because we are all Koreans and we left because of hunger that the intelligence officers would not treat us that poorly. Maybe I was too naive because it could not have been more different than that.” 

Jihyun was subjected to appalling living conditions, with prisoners crammed into tiny rooms, as well as frequent abuse from guards, who would kick prisoners with their “brass tipped boots”. She recalled a punishment she faced for using the toilet without permission, saying, “One day I was needing to go to the toilet desperately and asked them many times, but they never answered. I could not stop and ran to the toilet. As a punishment, they forced me [to] clean  the toilet with my hands without any water. It was not a regular toilet with flushing water. You cannot imagine how dirty it was.” This was only one of many punishments Jihyun and the other prisoners faced on a regular basis. Jihyun was soon transferred to a labour camp, where prisoners were fed with the same rice used to feed pigs in China, and forced to undertake menial labour. 

Shortly after, Jihyun was moved once again to a provincial correction camp, in her familiar hometown. She commented, “I remember passing by the building but never had been aware that it was a camp. It was not too far from my house. It was in an area where I grew up, went to school and lived with my family for more than 20 years, but I could not even see them”. Here she was forced to work from 4.30am to 11pm, carrying out extreme manual labour. If the prisoners did not wake up, the guards would take their shoes, making them work barefoot on ground full of stones and pieces of sharp glass. 

“We were the shovels. I could not even think about my son. I only thought of survival”. After being cut by glass, Jihyun’s legs became swollen, and she could no longer walk. As the infection spread, she was told that she had a 50% chance of survival if her leg was amputated. Soon after, she was released with her uncle’s signature, who told her he would never see her again. Jihyun miraculously received medical care from a herbal doctor who eased the spread of the gangrene, and sought refuge in a vagabond orphanage shelter. 

In 2008, Jihyun finally reached England after a decade-long struggle to escape. When I asked what could be done to raise awareness, Jihyun said, “The pain that we experienced will probably never be erased in one lifetime. However, the reason why I still share my story and speak about North Korean human rights is captured in a German proverb, ‘in stories, the pain is no longer painful.’ By sharing my painful experience, the listeners give me their sympathy. However, there are still people who are experiencing more pain than what I went through.”

Her emphasis on the importance of sharing these stories in order to raise awareness of the extent of the atrocities taking place in the DPRK has shed light on what form the conversation regarding North Korea should take. Rather than focusing on rumours revolving around the Kims, or succumbing to portrayals of the North Korean people as a singular, unlucky population with no minds of their own, we should remember the individual testimonies of people like Jihyun, who are actively urging us to think more carefully about the real experiences faced by real people that we have become increasingly desensitised to.

Photo credit: Lola Patel