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Escaping North Korea

Sylvia Wassermann / js
May 3, 2015

Abducted, enslaved, raped, and nearly starved to death - but you see none of that when talking to Jihyun Park. Her friendly manner hides the horror story of her escape from North Korea.

Jihyun Park, Flüchtling aus Nordkorea
Jihyun Park, a fugitive from North KoreaImage: DW/Sylvia Wassermann

Her story began in the mid-1990s, when a great famine gripped North Korea. "Until then," Jihyun Park told DW, "I was a convinced North Korean, and I believed the propaganda that ours was the best country in the world."

Something inside her broke in 1996 though, when she was forced to watch her uncle starve to death, and authorities forbade the family to speak of it. Official propaganda insisted that North Korea was a democratic country where nobody goes hungry.

Refusing outside help

But for many observers, North Korea is a hell that is almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world, where obedience is a citizen's most important duty.

In addition, the dictatorship will only accept outside help on the strictest conditions. The United Nations has asked member states for more than $100 million (89 million euros) in aid to North Korea.

But German politicians, like the head of the German-Korean parliamentary friendship group Hartmut Koschyk, believe that conditions must be tied to any such aid: "North Korea must continue to be clearly shown that the expansion of bilateral relations and humanitarian aid are inseparable from respect for human rights and the right to freedom of religious expression."

But Jihyun Park is not convinced that such well-intentioned aid helps. "It has been like that for 20 years," she says. "Supposedly it is for the people of North Korea, but the people are still starving, it's not getting any better."

Archivbild Humanitäre Hilfe für Nordkorea in der Krise
North Korea only accepts humanitarian aid on certain conditionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Yonhap/Kcna

Sold for 700 euros

In 1998, her dying father sent her and her brother away. They were supposed to flee to China, but the escape helpers turned out to be human traffickers. Jihyun Park was sold to a Chinese man for the equivalent of 700 euros.

"Officially I was his wife, unofficially I was his slave," she says. Her brother was betrayed and taken back to North Korea. Park's only solace is the birth of her son Chol. Yet mother and son were considered economic migrants in China, and there was no asylum for North Koreans. "There is a reward for anyone who betrays an illegal," says Jihyun Park. "I was turned in by a neighbor." The young mother was taken back to North Korea in 2004, and had to leave her son in China. In her old home country she was condemned as a traitor and thrown into the labor camp at Chongjin.

Park says that women in the camp were forced to work from 4:30 a.m. until late in the evening. They had to plant, till, and harvest the fields with only their bare hands and no shoes, constantly in fear of being beaten, harassed, or sexually abused by the guards. "We weren't treated like humans, not even like animals, it was awful," says Park. A serious leg wound eventually saved her from prison - and today her leg bears an enormous scar, there is hardly a piece of undamaged skin left on it. Camp doctors did not think that the sick woman would ever recover, and they sent her home.

A surprise happy end

Park fled to China again, where she sought and eventually found her young son. But as she attempted to flee into Mongolia, her energy deserted her at the border - her small son and her leg were simply too much. Suddenly a man approached. "I thought, that's it, I'm done for. But the man wasn't a Chinese soldier, he was a fugitive like me. He helped us. He was my savior."

Jihyun Park beams as she tells us this part of the story. That savior is now her husband, and they have two children together. "I only knew the marriage that the trafficker had sold me into," she said. "I never knew that something like love existed. But today I am a happy woman, loved by my husband and my children."

There was indeed a happy end for Jihyun Park. Today she lives in Manchester, in the UK, and has made peace with her fate: "I won my personal fight against North Korea."

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