As we settle into our nook desk at Rowntree’s Cafe in Bury city centre, my North Korean lunch companion is chatting to our Indonesian waitress about their adopted dwelling. I’m nonetheless reeling from Jihyun Park’s current memoir, which I completed the evening earlier than.
In 1996, Park was working as a maths trainer on the outskirts of the town of Chongjin in North Korea’s north-east — a job secured, partly, by her mom bribing native college officers with Chinese language cigarettes and dried octopus.
The nation was present process a vicious famine, and lots of of her pupils had stopped turning as much as class. She would see them round city — malnourished, filthy, foraging for meals. Some have been as younger as 4 or 5 years outdated. She recollects one fishing in a sewer for a number of grains of rice.
Someday, she noticed a boy hunched towards a wall on the railway station. It was one among her favorite pupils, who had professed his want to turn into a health care provider in order that he may look after his classmates.
“Eyes broad in despair, I coated my mouth with each arms and held my breath,” she writes in The Arduous Street Out. “[It was] the boy who would by no means turn into a health care provider as a result of his life had come to an finish on the age of 13 as he huddled towards a wall. The little barefoot boy who nonetheless haunts me to this present day.”
Since that point, Park has endured an extra litany of horrors: tricked into servitude in rural China, trafficked, raped, crushed, separated from her younger son, despatched again to North Korea and thrown into a jail camp earlier than re-entering China and making an unsuccessful try at escaping throughout the Gobi desert to Mongolia.
However once I meet her in Bury, a former Lancashire mill city now nestled within the Manchester commuter belt, she is radiating happiness. Fourteen years after she got here to Britain as a refugee, Park appears eager to dissect the foibles of her adopted compatriots and impervious to the gloom that has taken maintain of the remainder of the nation.
“Once I arrived, what I seen about individuals in England is just not that they’re wealthy, however that they’re all the time smiling, that they’re relaxed and don’t appear to have any worries,” she enthuses.
“Once I got here right here it was the primary time I had seen that. Most individuals on the planet are good — however particularly in my city Bury and in England, as a result of they’re educating me about happiness and about freedom.”
Rowntree’s is a quintessential British cafe specialising in cooked breakfasts and fish and chips. We each order the latter — mine with mushy peas, hers with gravy — and every get a can of Coke. I inform Park my very own cause to be a bit sentimental: my father was born and raised in neighbouring Bolton and prides himself on recognizing a fellow Lancastrian a mile away. My solely remorse is that I’ve forgotten to hunt out a serving of black pudding, widespread in each Bury and North Korea and maybe the one factor that connects the 2 locations aside from Park herself.
She was born in Chongjin in 1968 right into a modest household that for a lot of her youth was devoted and obedient to the North Korean regime. However her father grew more and more embittered because the household’s lowly class standing restricted his kids’s entry to the colleges they deserved to attend. Her mom, a part of a technology of North Korean ladies who had taken to the black market to supply for his or her households, was partaking in more and more dangerous illicit business actions.
In 1997, Park’s brother Jeong-ho abandoned from the military. Her mom had already left for China, on the run from offended collectors after a enterprise transaction went improper. Within the data that “if Jeong-ho will get arrested, all of us get arrested”, it was determined that Park, her sister, brother-in-law and niece ought to escape to China. The choice was unavoidable, however heart-rending: her father was too sick to go away his mattress and they might by no means see him once more.
“My father by no means instructed me what he thought till he lastly instructed us to go away the nation,” she says. “He was a courageous individual; he inspired us though he didn’t know if we might survive, and [that he] would by no means see us once more. That’s why I’ll by no means hand over encouraging North Koreans to be free.”
After a number of harrowing years in rural China, throughout which era she gave start to her first son, Park moved to the north-eastern Chinese language metropolis of Harbin. In 2004, she was ratted out to the authorities and deported again to Chongjin, the place she was left to rot in a detention centre. She was launched solely as a result of she had a gangrenous leg and the guards “didn’t need one other demise on the books”.
She bribed her means again into China and was reunited along with her son. Their try to flee to Mongolia failed, however throughout that aborted mission she met her current husband, a warm-hearted North Korean whom she credit with saving their lives.
In 2008, the household have been granted asylum within the UK and moved to Manchester. They ultimately settled in Bury, the place Park and her husband had one other son and a daughter. I ask her what else she seen about her new neighbours.
“I by no means drink, I by no means smoke, so for me it was obscure what number of women right here get drunk, they smoke they usually shout on the street.” She is talking affectionately and wholly with out reproach. “And the opposite factor is that buddies use the F-word to one another! They aren’t one another’s enemies, so why do they use these phrases?”
As soon as in Britain, Park started a brand new chapter as a human-rights activist and advocate for the rights of refugees. However she rose to nationwide prominence in 2021, when she was chosen to face — in the end unsuccessfully — as a council candidate for the Conservative occasion.
She places her choice to hitch the occasion all the way down to Brexit, although as she later explains, this was not the difficulty that will ultimately push her into working for native workplace.
“I joined the Conservative occasion in 2017, after the Brexit referendum,” she says. “I grew to become a Eurosceptic after a visit to the European parliament in 2015 for a gathering about refugee points. I used to be shocked! I had learnt that Britain was an ‘empire nation’, so why was it like a colony of all these different international locations?”
She likens the EU to a North Korean house constructing, which is often presided over by an inminbanjan, usually an older married lady who displays each facet of its residents’ lives on behalf of the state.
“Britain is a rustic which ought to have its personal life, not managed by different European international locations like Germany or France,” she says. “When Brexit occurred, I used to be actually comfortable. I’ll by no means remorse my choice, and I nonetheless assist it.”
The cafe is busy, and I ponder what number of of our fellow diners share her Brexit convictions. I ask her about Boris Johnson, who on the time of our assembly is but to be defenestrated by Conservative MPs. Given her staunch assist for leaving the EU, I anticipate enthusiasm. However the temperature drops.
“I’m actually upset. He broke my coronary heart and the hearts of many, many individuals,” she says. She was revolted by the unlawful events in Downing Avenue throughout coronavirus lockdowns. “He has damaged legal guidelines — it’s not regular. He has finished nice issues, however he’s not our chief these days and I hope he resigns.”
Did the “partygate” scandal resonate along with her as a result of, like many Britons in the course of the pandemic, she was not given the prospect to say a correct farewell to a beloved relative? “Sure, individuals have been dying day by day and I felt helpless. It jogged my memory of the trauma in North Korea,” she says.
That feeling of helplessness inspired her to begin gathering and delivering meals and medical provides to weak individuals within the city. “That’s why I began volunteering, and why I made a decision to face as a candidate in a neighborhood election.”
As a Conservative occasion member and advocate for the rights of refugees, what does she make of the federal government’s plans to move migrants looking for asylum within the UK to Rwanda?
“When the coverage was first introduced, I agreed with it as a result of it’s meant to cope with the deaths [from] unlawful crossings of the Channel on account of human trafficking,” she says. “I perceive the individuals within the boats. Once we have been making an attempt to get to Mongolia, it was both demise or survival, and we had a 50/50 probability. Human trafficking doesn’t simply kill the bodily physique, it kills the soul.
“However what makes me actually offended is refugees being despatched again to Afghanistan, Syria and different international locations the place there aren’t any human rights. That makes me actually offended! We aren’t unlawful individuals — we’re people from international locations that destroyed our rights.”
As we discuss, a transparent distinction emerges between massive common points akin to refugee rights, human trafficking, sexual violence towards ladies and the predations of totalitarian regimes on the one hand, and questions relating extra narrowly to British home, native and occasion politics on the opposite.
For Park, the previous class relates on to her personal experiences. These are the causes about which she has robust emotions, on which she is a vocal public advocate.
However her life as a Conservative occasion member and a council candidate seems to be one thing else. Paradoxically, her entry into native politics and campaigning on points akin to fly-tipping have been expressions of her proper to a non-public life — a life that the Kim regime had made not possible.
“Folks ask me why I’m a Conservative. However I’m simply expressing my voice. I don’t do it as a result of I assist a celebration. I do it as a result of I’m an activist, I wish to assist individuals. I’ve freedom of selection,” she says.
“That is my hometown. Once I do my human rights activism, I’m robust, with a loud voice. However right here in Bury, I’m completely completely different. I’m with individuals visiting the market, shopping for greens and fish, laughing collectively. I sit within the again backyard with a cup of tea. In North Korea, there isn’t any distinction between work and life — it’s simply politics, politics, politics.”
In case you have been questioning concerning the fish and chips, they hit the spot. Each glad, we take a stroll by way of the city centre and sit on a bench close to a statue of Robert Peel, a Nineteenth-century Conservative prime minister and one among Bury’s most well-known sons. The little sq. is calm and nice, with pubs on one facet and an Anglican church on the opposite.
I ask Park about China. Arriving there after her household’s escape from North Korea in 1997, she realised that she had successfully been bought into slavery. She was raped by a “marriage-broker” and forcibly married to a neighborhood farmer. In her memoir, the brutality she experiences in North Korea comes predominantly by the hands of the state. However in China it appears to come back from the society round her.
58 The Rock, Bury BL9 0PB
Fish and chips (with mushy peas or gravy) x2 £16.70
Coca-Cola x2 £2.40
Park’s story shines a lightweight on the truth that, for many years, the one means for a lot of North Korean ladies to flee the regime has been by promoting themselves (or being bought, usually tricked and knowledgeable solely when it’s too late) as wives to Chinese language farmers in a area the place most native ladies depart to search out jobs within the cities.
She describes being taken to “a type of exhibition corridor the place an public sale was going down . . . It was not merely a market the place males got here to purchase ladies. Total households got here to buy staff — slaves to plough their fields as a substitute of oxen.”
As a result of these ladies haven’t any authorized rights in China, they usually haven’t any authorized declare to the kids born of those marriages, forcing them to decide on between remaining in servitude or working away and by no means seeing their kids once more. In a single devastating passage in her memoir, Park reveals that the individuals who bought her to the traffickers behind her again have been her personal mom and sister.
“The cash this marriage will usher in will save our household. We can be grateful to you to the tip of our days,” her mom instructed her after she realised she had been tricked.
As we sit on the bench, I ask her how she feels now about her mom, with whom she has no technique of contact. “I’m nonetheless offended at my mom. However I additionally perceive she had no selection. She had to consider the entire household. They trusted me, and I saved their lives.” She wipes away a tear. “However nonetheless, the reminiscence is painful. I’m not solely a mom, I’m a mom’s youngster as properly.”
I really feel wretched about asking her to revisit these instances. However she seems reinvigorated, as if reminded why she was assembly me within the first place.
“However it additionally means I’ve an obligation to talk out, as a result of I’m a really free individual. It isn’t solely about getting data to North Koreans, however about getting it to South Koreans and all people else too. Too many journalists write about Kim Jong Un’s coiffure, or if he likes Swiss cheese, and never concerning the crimes he’s committing.”
How does one individual carry a lot — the ache of a household misplaced and life destroyed, and the enjoyment and problem of a brand new household and a brand new life in such an unfamiliar place?
She credit her household and her memoir’s co-author, Seh-lynn Chai, who’s from South Korea, with serving to her confront her previous and unearth fragments of comfortable reminiscences from her North Korean life.
“It isn’t one individual carrying all this. Seh-lynn saved my life, she gave me happiness and smiles. I share it with others, I share it with you, you share it by way of this interview. The pen can kill harmless individuals, however it might additionally kill the satan.”
I get a bit emotional. Within the three weeks that I’ve been again dwelling within the UK after a 12 months in South Korea, she is the one individual I meet to precise any contentment, or any optimism concerning the future.
“England remains to be a free and democratic nation, not as a result of solely English individuals dwell right here, however as a result of English individuals and refugees dwell collectively.” Robert Peel is peeking over her shoulder. “English individuals educate us the language and the tradition, and we inform them about freedom and why it can be crucial. That’s why the nation remains to be robust.”
She returns to her favorite topic. “I like being within the north of England. It’s relaxed and it’s beautiful speaking to individuals. You recognize the neighbours, you resolve some issues collectively.” She giggles. “I like being a northerner.”
Christian Davies is the FT’s Seoul bureau chief
Discover out about our newest tales first — comply with @ftweekend on Twitter