When Jihyun Park, a North Korean defector, agreed to conduct an interview with me, I could not believe my luck. It was an opportunity to speak with someone born and raised in one of the most mysterious and top secret countries in the world, and I was both curious and excited as to what she might share. Yet, I do not think anything could have prepared me for what Jihyun was about to divulge about her experiences in the DPRK.
Question: North Korea is renowned for being a secluded society with very limited information. We don’t really know what goes on inside and all the media is censored. As you were born and raised there, could you give us a description of your upbringing?
Answer: In this world you have freedom of movement and information. North Korea does not have this. North Korea is a dynastic country. Information from abroad is cut off. We are only taught about the Kim family, so we are a brainwashed country. When you are born, the first word you speak is “Kim”. From when you are born to when you pass away, you only learn about the Kim family. If you, me and another one are best friends and we have known each other for 20 or 25 years, if one day I speak badly about Kim Jung-un, the next day I will be on my way to a prison camp. This is the North Korean system. North Korea has a classification system, one class are loyal people, second and third class are “bad” people. The government will always be watching these people. North Korea has only one TV channel, one newspaper, and majority of people still do not have an electric system.
Question: There was a very severe famine in North Korea. Were your family or friends affected by this? There are several reports of people resorting to eating grass because of the food shortage, did you witness anything to that extent?
Answer: In 1996, my uncle died of starvation. He died in my home. He worked as a farmer. At the start of 1995 North Korea entered severe famine. Nobody had any food. When he came to my house, we tried to give him what we had, but he couldn’t eat anyway. After 7 days he died. Afterwards, I looked at my uncle’s body, but it was not a human, it looked like an animal. We didn’t have a coffin, so we just wrapped him and placed him on the mountain. 3 million people died of starvation in North Korea. But the government said that this is a socialist state, so nobody died of hunger. Because of that, we couldn’t say my uncle died of hunger, we said he died of illness. I was a teacher at school, and every day children wouldn’t go to school. They stayed with their family and looked for food outside. We often saw our students in the streets looking for food. One day I was in school and one student ran to me saying “teacher, teacher, Jin (one of my students) and all his family have died in his home”. I went to Jin’s house and looked in the kitchen. They looked for 7 days and couldn’t find any food. They had made soup as a last meal, and after they ate they all died as a family together. Because they would say in North Korea, if you die of hunger, it isn’t happiness. If you die over a last meal with your family, that is happiness. The whole family died in the room. And it isn’t just one family that suffered this, there were lots of families.
Question: Were you alone in your desire to escape North Korea? We are aware of strong indoctrination and censorship inside, and as a result a lot of people are brought up genuinely loving and adoring the Kim family. Were there similar attitudes to yours?
Answer: The first time I escaped North Korea, it was to save my brother. That time I didn’t know that we were in economic problems because I believed my regime. My regime told us that the economic problem was the same in America and South Korea, and I just believed that because I had been brainwashed for 30 years. Also, America and South Korea were my enemy country, I had been taught to hate them. So, this time I only wanted to save my brother, and after North Korea economy grew, I wanted to come back again. I didn’t think about hating my regime, I never thought of that, I just wanted to save my brother. So I went to China.
Question: How did you manage to escape?
Answer: The first time I escaped I sent money to a broker, who was a soldier in the army, and they helped me cross the border. The second time I met the same broker and he trafficked me into China. The second time I had no option, I was aware of the real North Korean system, and I had damaged my leg and couldn’t walk properly. I strongly hated this country, and in China I had a son waiting for me. I wanted to meet my son.
Question: How was life in China? I’m aware that you yourself were trafficked.
Answer: Yes, everyone in North Korea thinks that if they go to China, their life will change. But in China, North Korean people don’t experience this change. It is the same life as North Korea. They face discrimination and violation of human rights. Women are trafficked and sold to Chinese men, and subjected to slavery. I never had freedom of speech or movement. I didn’t have an ID card, so every day I was illegal. Life is not humane in China for North Korean defectors. I was forced to work outside without a salary. In my personal experience, I was treated like an animal. I was sold to a Chinese man and we went to his house, I remember his toilet was collapsed. I was the first Korean to come to the house, so the next day lots of people in the village came to the house and told me that if I tried to escape, they would rape me, report me to the police, or kill me secretly. I was very scared and didn’t know anyone in China. So, from start of spring till autumn, from 4.30am till night time, I worked every day. The family said that they bought me and borrowed money to do so, and so I have to work outside and earn money so they can pay off the debt. One day on a hot summer, everyone doesn’t work because it is too hot. So I went home to the Chinese man I lived with and his mother. There was a lot of food on the table, but when I went in, I was given rice, water and kimchi as my meal. Every day they would hide food from me. When I delivered my son, he was never given any food. After 3 months, the Chinese man does not work anyway as he was a gambling addict, I was given no food and no rice, so I stayed at home. My son would drink from my milk but I wasn’t given anything by the Chinese man. My neighbour came and gave me rice, only rice. She had a lot of vegetables but didn’t give me any. The family would eat meat and fish, but didn’t give me any. So in China, really, there wasn’t much difference from North Korea.
Question: How were you caught and sent back to North Korea?
Answer: I was sent back to North Korea in 2004. It was night time, 10pm. Someone knocked on the door. In China I could never sleep properly because I was always scared, I would wake up at every small sound. So that time someone knocked so late at night, my heart was beating quickly. I opened the door and there were 10 Chinese policemen. They handcuffed me and sent me to a Chinese prison camp, because someone reported that I was North Korean to the Chinese police.
Question: When you went back to North Korea, were you sent to a prison camp? How were your experiences?
Answer: I didn’t go to a prison camp, I went to a labour camp. Prison camp is for when someone has met a South Korean, Christians, or who watched international TV. In this case him and the whole family goes. They just asked me many questions like what did I do in China. I told them I was just trafficked in China. They asked me if I met a South Korean or a Church person, and I said no, I never. Because when you say that, you go to the prison camp. In China there is a big prison camp which is mainly for North Korean defectors. When people go there they often meet South Korean or Christians, but when they are sent back they lie and say they haven’t so they won’t go to a prison camp. I stayed at a security camp for 17 days, then after that I went to Onsung Dan-Ryeon-Dae. I worked there, and after a month I was sent to Do-Juip-Kyul-So, and here also I worked. In other countries there are machines to do farming and technology, but in North Korea it is humans that do everything. We just use two hands and work every day. We grow corn and beans with two hands. We weren’t given shoes, we had to do it all barefoot. That way we couldn’t escape. North Korean streets are not concrete, they are very dirty. After that I had a problem with my leg that I still have now. A North Korean doctor told me I would have to have my leg cut off, but at that time I couldn’t. Also, in North Korean prison camps, conditions for women are very horrible. When women have their menstrual cycle, they are not given any sanitary towels. Every day we have a face towel and a small bowl of water to wash our faces. Some women, when on their cycle, used to take the towel and use it. Because there was nowhere to wash, the smell would be horrible. When I was on my period, when they gave the bowl of water in the morning I would wash my towel. However, one day when I was washing it, a guard saw me and punished me. He took the towel and put it on my face, pouring water on it. For one hour I sat there just saying “sorry sorry” but he kept the towel to my face. Also, women who got pregnant in China were not allowed to keep the baby because it has a foreign father. They would force abortions, then they wouldn’t take them to the hospital. I met one woman who miscarried at 5 months and couldn’t stop the bleeding. I don’t know if she survived. I was taken to another camp. If a woman is 8 or 9 months pregnant, when they deliver the baby, the kill the baby and mother. In this country, you can’t imagine that.
Question: How have you been helping so far?
Answer: Now my work is to stop the human trafficking. I know this world only focuses on nuclear weapons when it comes to North Korea. Nobody understands North Korean human rights and women issues. First we must stop trafficking, and to help do that I’ve been sharing my experiences all around the world. Many need to read more on the situation in North Korea and ordeal of women. Women problem is not only women problem, it is children’s problem too. The babies delivered in China are nameless and nationality-less. 20,000 children are living in China nameless and can’t go to school. We must save these children. Also, if a man doesn’t like his woman, he sells her to another man. North Korean women in china are not treated like human beings, they are treated like objects. We must do something.
Question: Do you have a message for North Korea?
Answer: I ask the North Korean regime if they have read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? It is for all people, including North Koreans. Everyone has the right to freedom of speech, movement and love. North Korean people don’t know what these freedoms are. I ask North Korea government, if your wife or daughter was trafficked and treated like a slave, how would you feel? I ask them this, because if you are human, you would have feelings. North Koreans do not know happiness and love. Their dream is only to sit around the table with the family and have one more meal. That is not a big dream, so many people can do this in this world. But North Koreans and defectors can never do that. Defectors do not know where their family is. Where is my brother? I don’t know. They don’t know where their husband, son or sister is. They don’t know, and will never know. I send a message, give them freedom and happiness.
With that powerful final sentence, my interview with Jihyun came to a close. There are thousands of defectors, from Manchester to Seoul, all gathering the courage to speak out against the oppression of their regime.