People often talk about heaven and hell. I spent 30 years in hell, and another 10 years in search of freedom, before escaping North Korea. Now, living in the UK for the past decade, I have finally found my heaven. Imagine that you lived in a place where you had no access to the outside world and had no information about other countries, except for what your government wanted you to believe. In this place, your neighbour is an informant who spies on you, and constantly gauges your expressions to make sure you are sincere in thought, as well as speech.
And people periodically ‘disappear’, never to be seen by friends or family again, because most of them are killed or sent off to one of the many secret forced labour camps. That was my life. I first left the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1998, due to the famine and economic crisis of the mid-90s. This period is also known as the ‘Arduous March’, a time where hundreds of thousands of people died of hunger, leading to an exodus of Koreans. In my hometown of Chongjin, near the Chinese border, I was approached by a man who promised me an honest and well-paid job in China, and a safe way out for my brother. Once there, however, I was separated from my brother, taken to a trafficking establishment and sold to a Chinese man. Meanwhile, my brother was captured and repatriated a year later, and I still don’t know if he survived or if he is dead. The majority of North Koreans who escape through China face a similar fate, which is directly against the UN Displaced Persons Act. This is because the country and the DPRK signed an agreement in 1993, which specifies the allowance for the arrest and repatriation of illegal border crossers and immigrants. To this day, China continues to arrest and repatriate North Koreans. In the labour camps, they took everything from us, including our names
Until 2004, I didn’t know much about the labour camps in DPRK, because I was enslaved in China and struggling with my own survival, but I became intimately aware of the horrors that year, when I too was arrested and repatriated. I was imprisoned, tortured, and re-educated for six months. We were crammed together in a tiny space that measured no more than 1.5 sq metres, with barely enough space to stand. We had one toilet between 40 to 50 people, and there was only a small cover, so everyone could see when you used it. We were body-searched and disciplined. Those who didn’t comply were punished; I remember female guards kicking elderly people and calling them names. They took everything of value from us, gave us a number instead of using our names, and there was nowhere for us to sleep. When I asked for some space so I could lie down, the guards kicked me with their brass tip boots. The pain from it lasted for over a month, and I couldn’t walk. Once, they even told me to clean the toilet with my hand. No pads were given to women on their periods either – we used to cut up towels and use those. And we weren’t allowed any water to wash them, so we had to reuse them as they were. I have escaped North Korea twice
I got caught trying to wash my towel and they punished me by having me put the bloody cloth on my head and say ‘I am sorry’ over and over. I decided to stop eating to avoid the pain, and didn’t eat for 13 days. After this, I was sent to a provincial camp. There, we were told to build and demolish houses, working over 18 hours a day, with half an hour breaks to eat (allocated across three meals). We were fed rice that was as hard as stones, sent from China and meant to feed pigs. People were dying, one after the other. When my legs got infected, they moved me to a labour camp. I remember when the blisters popped, and people told me it smelled like a dead person. Eventually, I was released with my uncle’s signature. But my uncle left me, saying he would never see me again. I had nowhere to go, and my legs kept rotting. Flies would sit on them during the day and the rats would come at night. It got so bad that the doctors amputated one of them. After two months, when I was able to walk again, I escaped the country once more. This time, I understood in my heart of hearts that the DPRK is an enormous prison – and that those who live there are condemned to slavery, exploitation, oppression and persecution. I was moved to a labour camp when my legs got infected – and doctors had to amputate one of them
I also gave birth to a son in China, who was nameless and nationless because I was a foreigner without legal status. This is despite the fact that the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights both state that when a person is born, they are entitled to a name and nationality. He was taken from me, but we were reunited a year later, and he is now a university student in the UK, where I live with him and my husband Kwang Hyun Joo. This is my journey as a North Korean refugee, but many people still live in this dictatorship country, brainwashed by the government before they’re even old enough to say their first words. My home country is shrouded in mystery, with very little information passing between the borders. My home country does not have freedom of speech, freedom of movement or freedom of belief. My home country is a place that conjures up images of secrecy, censorship and nuclear threats. Jihyun Park with her husband Kwang Hyun Joo at their home
North Korea is a blind spot when it comes to human rights, despite people going through tremendous suffering, similar to my own. Human rights are universal, they should not be differentiated by country of birth. No one should have more entitlement to human rights than others. In 2014, Michael Kirby, then chief investigator for the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK, compared the events in North Korea to the Holocaust. But since then, nothing has changed. The issues surrounding North Korean human rights remain, and many people are still in political prison camps. International governments stay quiet on this issue while innocent people die – their silence will kill millions more in the future.
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Source: Metro UK