North Korean exile Jihyun Park: ‘The pen can kill innocent people, but it can also kill the devil’

As we settle into our corner table at Rowntree’s Cafe in Bury town centre, my North Korean lunch companion is chatting to our Indonesian waitress about their adopted home. I am still reeling from Jihyun Park’s recent memoir, which I finished the night before.

In 1996, Park was working as a maths teacher on the outskirts of the city of Chongjin in North Korea’s north-east — a job secured, in part, by her mother bribing local university officials with Chinese cigarettes and dried octopus.

The country was undergoing a vicious famine, and many of her pupils had stopped turning up to class. She would see them around town — malnourished, filthy, foraging for food. Some were as young as four or five years old. She recalls one fishing in a sewer for a few grains of rice.

One day, she saw a boy hunched against a wall at the railway station. It was one of her favourite pupils, who had professed his desire to become a doctor so that he could care for his classmates.

“Eyes wide in despair, I covered my mouth with both hands and held my breath,” she writes in The Hard Road Out. “[It was] the boy who would never become a doctor because his life had come to an end at the age of thirteen as he huddled against a wall. The little barefoot boy who still haunts me to this day.”

Since that time, Park has endured a further litany of horrors: tricked into servitude in rural China, trafficked, raped, beaten, separated from her young son, sent back to North Korea and thrown into a prison camp before re-entering China and making an unsuccessful attempt at escaping across the Gobi desert to Mongolia.

But when I meet her in Bury, a former Lancashire mill town now nestled in the Manchester commuter belt, she is radiating happiness. Fourteen years after she came to Britain as a refugee, Park seems keen to dissect the foibles of her adopted compatriots and impervious to the gloom that has taken hold of the rest of the country.

“When I arrived, what I noticed about people in England is not that they are rich, but that they are always smiling, that they are relaxed and don’t seem to have any worries,” she enthuses.

“When I came here it was the first time I had seen that. Most people in the world are good — but especially in my town Bury and in England, because they are teaching me about happiness and about freedom.”

Rowntree’s is a quintessential British cafe specialising in cooked breakfasts and fish and chips. We both order the latter — mine with mushy peas, hers with gravy — and each get a can of Coke. I tell Park my own reason to be a little sentimental: my father was born and raised in neighbouring Bolton and prides himself on spotting a fellow Lancastrian a mile away. My only regret is that I have forgotten to seek out a serving of black pudding, popular in both Bury and North Korea and perhaps the only thing that connects the two places other than Park herself.

She was born in Chongjin in 1968 into a modest family that for much of her youth was faithful and obedient to the North Korean regime. But her father grew increasingly embittered as the family’s lowly class status restricted his children’s access to the universities they deserved to attend. Her mother, part of a generation of North Korean women who had taken to the black market to provide for their families, was engaging in increasingly risky illicit commercial activities.

In 1997, Park’s brother Jeong-ho deserted from the army. Her mother had already left for China, on the run from angry creditors after a business transaction went wrong. In the knowledge that “if Jeong-ho gets arrested, we all get arrested”, it was decided that Park, her sister, brother-in-law and niece should escape to China. The decision was unavoidable, but heart-rending: her father was too sick to leave his bed and they would never see him again.

“My father never told me what he thought until he finally told us to leave the country,” she says. “He was a brave person; he encouraged us even though he didn’t know if we would survive, and [that he] would never see us again. That’s why I will never give up encouraging North Koreans to be free.”

After several harrowing years in rural China, during which time she gave birth to her first son, Park moved to the north-eastern Chinese city of Harbin. In 2004, she was ratted out to the authorities and deported back to Chongjin, where she was left to rot in a detention centre. She was released only because she had a gangrenous leg and the guards “didn’t want another death on the books”.

She bribed her way back into China and was reunited with her son. Their attempt to escape to Mongolia failed, but during that aborted mission she met her present husband, a warm-hearted North Korean whom she credits with saving their lives.

In 2008, the family were granted asylum in the UK and moved to Manchester. They eventually settled in Bury, where Park and her husband had another son and a daughter. I ask her what else she noticed about her new neighbours.

“I never drink, I never smoke, so for me it was difficult to understand how many ladies here get drunk, they smoke and they shout in the street.” She is speaking affectionately and wholly without reproach. “And the other thing is that friends use the F-word to each other! They are not each other’s enemies, so why do they use these words?”

Once in Britain, Park began a new chapter as a human-rights activist and advocate for the rights of refugees. But she rose to national prominence in 2021, when she was selected to stand — ultimately unsuccessfully — as a council candidate for the Conservative party.

She puts her decision to join the party down to Brexit, though as she later explains, this was not the issue that would eventually push her into running for local office.

“I joined the Conservative party in 2017, after the Brexit referendum,” she says. “I became a Eurosceptic after a trip to the European parliament in 2015 for a meeting about refugee issues. I was shocked! I had learnt that Britain was an ‘empire country’, so why was it like a colony of all these other countries?”

She likens the EU to a North Korean apartment building, which is typically presided over by an inminbanjan, normally an older married woman who monitors every aspect of its residents’ lives on behalf of the state.

“Britain is a country which should have its own life, not controlled by other European countries like Germany or France,” she says. “When Brexit happened, I was really happy. I will never regret my decision, and I still support it.”

The cafe is busy, and I wonder how many of our fellow diners share her Brexit convictions. I ask her about Boris Johnson, who at the time of our meeting is yet to be defenestrated by Conservative MPs. Given her staunch support for leaving the EU, I expect enthusiasm. But the temperature drops.

“I’m really disappointed. He broke my heart and the hearts of many, many people,” she says. She was revolted by the illegal parties in Downing Street during coronavirus lockdowns. “He has broken laws — it’s not normal. He has done great things, but he’s not our leader nowadays and I hope he resigns.”

Did the “partygate” scandal resonate with her because, like many Britons during the pandemic, she was not given the chance to say a proper farewell to a beloved relative? “Yes, people were dying every day and I felt helpless. It reminded me of the trauma in North Korea,” she says.

That feeling of helplessness encouraged her to start collecting and delivering food and medical supplies to vulnerable people in the town. “That’s why I started volunteering, and why I decided to stand as a candidate in a local election.”

As a Conservative party member and advocate for the rights of refugees, what does she make of the government’s plans to transport migrants seeking asylum in the UK to Rwanda?

“When the policy was first announced, I agreed with it because it is meant to deal with the deaths [from] illegal crossings of the Channel as a result of human trafficking,” she says. “I understand the people in the boats. When we were trying to get to Mongolia, it was either death or survival, and we had a 50/50 chance. Human trafficking doesn’t just kill the physical body, it kills the soul.

“But what makes me really angry is refugees being sent back to Afghanistan, Syria and other countries where there are no human rights. That makes me really angry! We are not illegal people — we are humans from countries that destroyed our rights.”

As we talk, a clear distinction emerges between big universal issues such as refugee rights, human trafficking, sexual violence against women and the predations of totalitarian regimes on the one hand, and questions relating more narrowly to British domestic, local and party politics on the other.

For Park, the former category relates directly to her own experiences. These are the causes about which she has strong feelings, on which she is a vocal public advocate.

But her life as a Conservative party member and a council candidate appears to be something else. Paradoxically, her entry into local politics and campaigning on issues such as fly-tipping were expressions of her right to a private life — a life that the Kim regime had made impossible.

“People ask me why I’m a Conservative. But I am just expressing my voice. I don’t do it because I support a party. I do it because I am an activist, I want to help people. I have freedom of choice,” she says.

“This is my hometown. When I do my human rights activism, I am strong, with a loud voice. But here in Bury, I am totally different. I am with people visiting the market, buying vegetables and fish, laughing together. I sit in the back garden with a cup of tea. In North Korea, there is no difference between work and life — it is just politics, politics, politics.”

If you were wondering about the fish and chips, they hit the spot. Both satisfied, we take a walk through the town centre and sit on a bench near a statue of Robert Peel, a 19th-century Conservative prime minister and one of Bury’s most famous sons. The little square is calm and pleasant, with pubs on one side and an Anglican church on the other.

I ask Park about China. Arriving there after her family’s escape from North Korea in 1997, she realised that she had effectively been sold into slavery. She was raped by a “marriage-broker” and forcibly married to a local farmer. In her memoir, the brutality she experiences in North Korea comes predominantly at the hands of the state. But in China it seems to come from the society around her.

Rowntree’s Cafe
58 The Rock, Bury BL9 0PB

Fish and chips (with mushy peas or gravy) x2 £16.70
Coca-Cola x2 £2.40
Total £19.10

Park’s story shines a light on the fact that, for decades, the only way for many North Korean women to escape the regime has been by selling themselves (or being sold, often tricked and informed only when it is too late) as wives to Chinese farmers in a region where most local women leave to find jobs in the cities.

She describes being taken to “a sort of exhibition hall where an auction was taking place . . . It was not simply a market where men came to buy women. Entire families came to purchase workers — slaves to plough their fields instead of oxen.”

Because these women have no legal rights in China, they often have no legal claim to the children born of these marriages, forcing them to choose between remaining in servitude or running away and never seeing their children again. In one devastating passage in her memoir, Park reveals that the people who sold her to the traffickers behind her back were her own mother and sister.

“The money this marriage will bring in will save our family. We will be grateful to you to the end of our days,” her mother told her after she realised she had been tricked.

As we sit on the bench, I ask her how she feels now about her mother, with whom she has no means of contact. “I am still angry at my mother. But I also understand she had no choice. She had to think about the whole family. They depended on me, and I saved their lives.” She wipes away a tear. “But still, the memory is painful. I am not only a mother, I am a mother’s child as well.”

I feel wretched about asking her to revisit those times. But she appears reinvigorated, as if reminded why she was meeting me in the first place.

“But it also means I have a duty to speak out, because I am a truly free person. It is not only about getting information to North Koreans, but about getting it to South Koreans and everybody else too. Too many journalists write about Kim Jong Un’s hairstyle, or if he likes Swiss cheese, and not about the crimes he is committing.”

How does one person carry so much — the pain of a family lost and life destroyed, and the joy and challenge of a new family and a new life in such an unfamiliar place?

She credits her family and her memoir’s co-author, Seh-lynn Chai, who is from South Korea, with helping her confront her past and unearth fragments of happy memories from her North Korean life.

“It is not one person carrying all this. Seh-lynn saved my life, she gave me happiness and smiles. I share it with others, I share it with you, you share it through this interview. The pen can kill innocent people, but it can also kill the devil.”

I am getting a little emotional. In the three weeks that I have been back home in the UK after a year in South Korea, she is the only person I meet to express any contentment, or any optimism about the future.

“England is still a free and democratic country, not because only English people live here, but because English people and refugees live together.” Robert Peel is peeking over her shoulder. “English people teach us the language and the culture, and we tell them about freedom and why it is important. That’s why the country is still strong.”

She returns to her favourite subject. “I love being in the north of England. It is relaxed and it is lovely talking to people. You know the neighbours, you solve some problems together.” She giggles. “I love being a northerner.” 

Christian Davies is the FT’s Seoul bureau chief

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