(LONDON) — Jihyun Park had something of a political awakening at the start of the pandemic last year. Moved by stories of care homes struggling with PPE, and the elderly isolated from their loved ones in her town of Bury, England, she organized in her community to donate supplies.
“Last year in 2020, [there was] real darkness in all sorts of countries, also in England too. Every day I sat down in our home and I heard that kind of innocent people, they died of this virus, and many people they separated from family members, older people in care homes,” Park said.
But the separation, loneliness and sense of helplessness that many faced amid the pandemic was something Park knew intimately. She had experienced it all herself, as a refugee from the world’s most repressive states.
Now Park, a language tutor, is looking to make democratic history in the U.K. as a candidate for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party to represent her community as a local councillor. In doing so, she would become the first North Korean refugee elected to democratic office in the West.
The opportunity is a far cry from her childhood. What she heard about the outside world came from North Korean government channels, she recalled. At school, she said they played war games, acting out mock battles between North Korean and American troops, in which the North would always win.
In the 1980s, when Park was growing up, North Korea was on the cusp of the devastating famine, which came to be known as the “Arduous March.” Millions of North Koreans died of starvation between 1994 and 1998, according to the Wilson Center.
Park said she watched as her uncle died of starvation, and her father’s dying wish was that she escape North Korea with her brother, who had also fallen ill. In February 1998, she fled the country into neighboring China in the hope of a better life.
“But that 1% [of] hope, it was never brought to me. I was human trafficked and sold to a Chinese man,” she said.
She said she was separated from her younger brother, who was sent back to North Korea. Park would never see him, or her father, again, and to this day does not know if her brother survived, she said.
The next five years were spent in a village in the northern Chinese province of Heilongjiang. There, she said she was forced to work, paid nothing but rice and forbidden contact with the several other North Korean females who lived in the village.
At one time, she even contemplated suicide.
“So that’s really painful for me,” Park said. “But one day, I found out that I was pregnant. I was pregnant, so I had changed my mind because this child is my last family, the child gives me hope.”
She said the child was born in secret and never accepted as a true family member. Having been told by a local official to have an abortion, Park wore baggy clothes and continued to work to hide the pregnancy until the day she gave birth. When she did, she did not know how to breastfeed, and instead fed the child sugar water until she was chastised by a local woman assigned to help her, she recalled.
Then, in 2003, she was arrested in the dead of night in front of her child, who was then 5 years old, Park said.
“I was sent back to North Korea, I stayed in prison, but I never give up my hope,” she said. “My hope is only [to be] united to my son.”
Park said she was sent to a forced labor camp, where she worked on a farm. There, she injured her leg and was sent away to a government facility because she was told that she could not die in the camp.
During Park’s first escape attempt, the border was relatively lax, but had been strengthened by the time of her second in 2004. Since then, the number of North Koreans able to escape through to China, their most likely target being South Korea, has declined as the Chinese and North Korean governments have further secured the border area, according to NK News.
Park waited until her leg, though still damaged, had recovered enough to make the journey. After feigning that she could not walk to the authorities, she fled North Korea a second time with a broker through the mountains.
“I never sat down, I never said that because I knew if I sat down, I would never stand up,” she said.
Park said she traveled back to her former house and then fled to Beijing with her child, where she had hopes of reaching the South Korean embassy. There was a heavy Chinese police presence around the embassy, she said, and so Park met up with a group of fellow North Koreans to attempt to escape into Mongolia. They were forced to return over the border, she said, but among the people she met was her future husband.
“I fell in love with him. I didn’t know what this means, to love,” she said. “Because always life is a different thing in North Korea and in China. But this is the first I know what is love.”
They found work in Beijing for a few years, until they were approached by a Korean-American pastor, who cannot be named for security reasons. He helped facilitate contact with the U.N., and the couple opted to move to the U.K. Both the U.K. Home Office and UNHCR, the UN’s chief refugee agency, told ABC News they do not comment on individual cases.
For her dramatic story of overcoming adversity, work in providing language tutoring and other community services for her fellow North Korean refugees, who number around 700, according to estimates, she was awarded Amnesty International’s Brave Award of 2020.
“She has the most incredible personal story and just such an incredible story of perseverance and surviving the most atrocious circumstances,” Sara Rydkvist, campaign manager at Amnesty International, told ABC News. “And it was really that story, her story that captured our imagination.”
Now “comfortable” in the U.K. and a citizen of the country that took her in, Park is hoping to give back to the local community that accepted her by winning the local election on May 6.
“I got my political freedoms here,” she said. “I’m always happy because my family together live in a home. And every morning, I have a cup of tea, all the smiling faces with my family.”
Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.