Few manage to escape North Korea’s horrific totalitarian regime. But, under impossible circumstances, Ji Hyun Park escaped twice, enduring a decade-long journey to freedom. The systematic violence and fear inflicted by North Korea’s government on its people is well-known thanks to the bravery of defectors like Park who risked their lives fleeing North Korea.
Ji Hyun Park is a celebrated author, activist and campaigner for North Korean human rights based in the U.K. She works to raise awareness of the systemic human rights abuses in the country including forced labor, arbitrary detention and torture.
We sat down with Park to explore what life is like inside North Korea today.
You do incredible work supporting North Korean refugees who have had similar experiences to you, and you are a vocal activist campaigning for the human rights of all North Koreans. Can you give us an overview of the kind of work you’re doing and what your hopes are for the future?
In the U.K. there are around 700 North Korean refugees. They also experienced the same as me but not many people speak out. One of the reasons that a person may be unable to share their experiences is due to language problems. Same as me when I arrived in the UK 14 years ago – I didn’t speak any English at all so I didn’t understand the English culture and what people were saying and asking [us] so it was very difficult.
My first project was teaching English to North Korean refugees. That started in 2016 and I still do that now. I met many people from around the world – NGOs, university students, and also politicians. But many people don’t understand North Korea’s human rights issues especially human trafficking and modern slavery. I published a book on these experiences and that is also my future work – publishing North Korean voices. I also want to continue helping refugees with language skills in the U.K. and also support [refugees] with mental health issues because many people still deal with trauma and they don’t know how to solve this trauma. So I would like to see mental health programs provided in the future too.
When did you first decide to flee North Korea? What conditions prompted you to take that decision and how did you manage to escape?
My first escape was in 1998. We didn’t know the term ‘human rights’ and had never heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because North Korea cut off information from outside the country. This never reached us as North Korea is a dictatorship country. But we didn’t understand this when I lived in North Korea because the government always told us that North Korea is the greatest country in the world, not just in Asia, and socialism is great.
We were told that in countries like South Korea and America they have many homeless people, people aren’t free to access education or hospitals. In comparison to that, we believed that North Korea was a great country. The North Korean government never mentioned human rights or freedoms – nothing like that was mentioned. So we didn’t know about that. The government gave us rice every month, which was a different amount every time. We believed our government was a really great leader in the world.
But in the 1990s, the government stopped our food and people began to starve. In 1994 there was a famine. We saw many dead bodies in the street and our relatives died in front of us. My uncle died of starvation in front of me. My father was also ill but the government didn’t give us any rice or medicines. In 1998, many people just like me tried to escape from North Korea because they needed to find some food in China. They wanted to survive.
At that time we didn’t understand freedom but we wanted to survive. That’s why I had to escape North Korea. At that time on the North Korea/China border there was no fence so people were able to cross the border but there was a risk that we would be seen by soldiers who would shoot us immediately. I escaped in the middle of one cold February night. The river was frozen. By the time I had crossed halfway, North Korean soldiers began shouting at us and firing their guns. But I survived and crossed the border area.
Once in China, smugglers and traffickers were waiting on the border areas to kidnap the women and girls.
What was that experience of crossing the border into China like? How did you find yourself in North Korea once again?
The first time I escaped and arrived in China, I noticed there were many people living in the riverside areas. When I crossed the border I found one house and knocked on the door. They let me inside and gave me a meal – white rice, eggs and meat. This was a real surprise to me because I learned [in North Korea] that China was a very poor country and the Chinese people were also really hungry. But this person lived in a house with lights and a television. They had rice, meat, eggs. That was a surprise for me as my first experience in China.
Then this person told me that their place is not safe because we could already hear the gunfire on North Korea’s side of the border. We risked the Chinese police coming to look for us in the early morning and then sending us back to North Korea. This was a really horrific and scary moment. This person told me that he had a friend in a city area so he contacted him to ask him to help us leave. His friend arrived and we moved to another place but this person was actually a human trafficker and he sold me to a Chinese man.
I spent six years in China and I had a child. But he was stateless as a child because I was North Korean, so the Chinese government never gave him identification. Because my child was stateless, he couldn’t go to the hospital or to school. After six years in China, somebody reported me to the Chinese police and one night, the Chinese authorities came to my house and they arrested me and sent me back to North Korea. An agreement signed between China and North Korea states that China will not recognize escaped North Koreans as refugees. That’s why the Chinese government still sends North Koreans back to North Korea. Chinese citizens can be paid by authorities to report North Koreans. So I was sent back and I was separated from my five-year-old son. He remained in China and I was sent to North Korea.
The Chinese government says that North Koreans are illegal migrants, not refugees. That’s why North Koreans are never safe in China.
For those who are caught attempting to escape, what happens when they are returned to North Korea?
When we’re sent back to North Korea we’re sent as “anti-socialism” criminals. Many people who escape North Korea just want to find food and they want to survive. But North Korean authorities don’t recognize this, they just say that they are criminals. That’s why we end up in detention. We’re tortured, imprisoned and punished.
Many people escape in the first place because of economic reasons, but when they’re sent back to North Korea they’re treated as if they left for political reasons. The North Korean government asks us three questions: did you meet South Koreans in China? Did you visit a church? And, did we attempt to reach South Korea? So these are all political issues. Because North Korea never allowed any churches or religions inside North Korea, and South Korea is still an enemy in North Korea.
They sent us to a concentration camp and we stayed there. Pregnant women who are sent back to North Korea are subjected to forced abortions because the North Korean government won’t accept that child. So they kill these unborn babies. After being subjected to this, women are forced into hard labor in the mountains. Some women don’t medically recover from the abortion procedure and end up dying. It is unspeakable that this is happening inside North Korea and that detention camp systems exist today.
Forced labor is a key element of North Korea’s totalitarian system. Can you explain how forced labor is so widespread and what the reality is for people living in North Korea today?
In North Korea, it is said that there is nothing to envy and that everyone is equal. But in reality, people worked for very low salaries or for nothing at all. Child forced labor is also a problem. Children start in school aged seven and after school, they usually work in farm areas, mountains, or cleaning roads and schools for a few hours. From age 13 onwards they are forced to undertake more labor in the autumn and spring working at different farms. At 17 years old, boys and girls are expected to join the military.
This is really terrible and shocking. Women also wake up early in the morning and are forced to work in the mountains, roads and farms. This is all forced labor inside North Korea but many people can’t imagine what it’s like. Forced labor of North Koreans also happens abroad in other countries like Russia, China and some European countries. These people work in really hard conditions but they don’t get their full salaries, they only receive around 10% of their salary and the rest is kept by the North Korean government. The whole country is a form of modern-day slavery.
You eventually made it to the U.K. What was that experience like?
When I was in a North Korean labor camp, the conditions were unspeakable. These camps in North Korea – it’s like a 21st century holocaust. I was working in the camp without shoes, barefoot in mountain areas doing hard labor. I had a severe problem with my leg and I almost died in that prison camp.
They released me and told me that I could not die inside the camp. I was lucky to survive outside the camp. I had lost all my family members, my child in China was my only family. I always talked about being reunited with my child once again and building his future. That thought gave me strength and helped me survive in North Korea. My condition got a little better and I had to be trafficked back to China – I had no choice. I had no money and the border with China was very controlled so I couldn’t escape by myself again. But I wanted to reunite with my son so I got help from a trafficker to take me to China.
We arrived in China with five people including a young girl, an elderly man, and another man. The five of us escaped but the second man gave up on his journey halfway because he fell ill. We continued to walk and arrived in China. But many people in China are keeping an eye out to report North Koreans. We journeyed through mountain areas which was really hard for me because my leg was still hurting but I didn’t tell the traffickers about it and I continued to walk. The journey was really painful and it was a long, long journey. When we arrived, the trafficker didn’t sell me because I had saved his family’s life in North Korea so he released me and then I went to find my son.
When I finally met my son, I was shocked. He was like a street child. His father’s family hadn’t cared for him because I had been sent back to North Korea. He was essentially abandoned. They never cared about him. That was really heartbreaking for me. But when I held my child it was an amazing moment. In 2007 an American-Korean pastor helped us and in 2008 we landed in the U.K. My freedom journey was a 10-year journey from 1998-2008.
Is there anything you think the U.K. and the international community could be doing to support people who have escaped North Korea and those subjected to forced labor beyond North Korea’s borders?
Modern slavery and human trafficking is still an issue in the U.K. As a human rights activist and a Conservative party member – I was standing for local elections in 2021 and 2022 – I continue to raise my voice and tell the government what’s happening in the U.K. and all over the world. That’s why survivor voices are really important nowadays.
Education is also very important. North Korea is a totalitarian country and people live a life of slavery. We must continue raising awareness of people’s living conditions. The other issue is forced labor workers abroad in China, Russia and some European countries. People don’t recognize these workers as being in slavery so it’s important for countries where this forced labor is used that they recognize what’s happening and rescue these people.
Survivor voices are so important but it can be hard to speak out. We fled North Korea and found freedom in other countries but our families are still in North Korea. They can be punished and subjected to violence inside North Korea. Many survivors can’t speak out because they’re scared of what will happen to their loved ones. Activism work outside of North Korea can still be very dangerous because we don’t know if we’re leaving ourselves or our loved ones open to attack. But if the international community and NGOs work with us then we can raise our voices together. This gives me hope.