It was just after midnight on February 21, 1998, and the banks of the frozen Tumen River separating North Korea from China were engulfed in darkness. We would have to cross the icy river on foot. As I walked, I focused on each step so as not to slip. This also helped me forget my fear.
But I couldn’t help wondering how many innocent souls had been swallowed up by this river and how many had managed to cross the 20-something yards of frozen water and reach China.
And how many others, like me, had abandoned their father on his deathbed, a bowl of cold rice beside him?
It took us 15 minutes to cross from one world into another. We were already well into Chinese soil when we heard the Korean guards behind us shouting: ‘Fugitives!’ We also heard gunshots, but it was too late. We were out of range.
We ran towards the first house we saw, knocked on the door and a Chinese woman opened it. Despite our muddy rags, our hair stiff with cold and our wan faces, she invited us in. She served us soup and eggs with white rice on the side.
In Korea, we had lived with death for years, yet just across the border another world existed. A world barely 100 yards away, where you could bask in abundance.
Today, I am a mother-of-three who twice escaped from North Korea and survived forced marriage, acute poverty, famine and illness before I was finally granted asylum in the UK in 2008.
I will never go back to Chongjin on the east coast of North Korea, a city nestling between the base of a mountain range and the sea that separates Korea from Japan. It had once been a small fishing village, but by the 1970s it was the third-largest city in the country. I can still see myself as a little girl of four in a tiny apartment, just 50ft square.
The buildings were named according to where the residents worked. Ours was called ‘Mechanical Department No2’ after the factory where my father serviced cars. Everyone worked at the same place, everyone lived in the same lodging, everyone earned the same amount of money. It was ‘the Workers’ Paradise’.
Our family of five, including my younger brother Jeong-ho and my older sister Myeong-sil, slept on the floor and in the evening the room was lit by a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling.
Light bulbs were rationed, a gift of Kim Il Sung, and not available to everyone. If any lights were left on too late, the authorities would cut the electricity to the building as a collective punishment, and you would be cursed by your neighbours.
So we lived in the dark most of the time and spoke little, since the apartment walls were paper-thin.
Our building manager, Mrs Choi, gathered information on residents and passed it directly to the Department of National Security.
Propaganda painting In North Korea
I was born on July 30, 1968, but in North Korea we don’t celebrate children’s birthdays. Only the birthday of our beloved father, founder of the nation Kim Il Sung, on April 15, is celebrated.
Of course he was the most important person in the world. Of course we must love him. His portrait was everywhere – on the red badges on our parents’ jackets, on the streets, in the trains, in the railway stations, in the newspapers.
There was a giant statue of him in the park, at the foot of which we placed flowers on his birthday, and his portrait in our house, which my mother and father cleaned every day with a special cloth. In spite of our hardships, I was a noble, proud and patriotic child, happy to live under Kim Il Sung’s protection. On the way to school, we would sing the words to a hymn called Pi Bada (Sea Of Blood) which talked about fighting the barbaric Japanese imperialist puppets with courage – a procession of small children, screaming until blue in the face.
Our teachers told us that Our Leader worked his entire life to bring happiness to the people of North Korea. It was thanks to him that we were alive, that we had food to eat and a roof over our heads.
We owed him everything.
Nonetheless, we were always hungry. Most of the meagre rations we received consisted of food made from maize. Mum displayed feats of imagination in order to put food in our bowls every day, but it wasn’t enough, and hunger often kept me from sleeping. The next day, it was the same thing all over again.
That feeling of eating my fill… I think that in the 30 years I lived in North Korea, I only experienced it twice. Once, when I was eight years old and my father brought bread home. The second time was the day I ate ten eggs in a row.
My father had come back that day cradling a backpack made of black cloth and motioned to us to remain silent. Placing the backpack on the table, he withdrew 50 white eggs one by one and placed them carefully beside the backpack. He had got them in return for some work he had done for a farm, but in a country where all food belonged to the state, he was breaking the law by accepting them.
‘If any of our neighbours see or hear about this, they’ll denounce us to the police and we’ll be arrested immediately,’ he said.
‘Boil them, all of them. Now! We’re going to eat them all at once. Do not speak of this beyond these walls. Tell no one that you’ve been eating eggs.’
And so my mother boiled them and we ate them, ten each.
More than once, my father placed a finger over his lips to remind us not to make a sound. Then my mother ground up the shells to a fine powder and threw them in the fire. No one would ever know.
Jihyun Park, a North Korean defector, who escaped fleeing first to China and then settling in the UK
At school, all students were required to submit to self-criticism every week. We had to say who had got a bad grade and denounce those who had behaved badly.
‘She scribbled in her workbook during the history lesson on Kim Il Sung!’ one pupil would declare. The accused pupil would confess their crime and promise never to do it again, and then might be sentenced to write out their self-criticism ten times by the following day.
Some children cried when they were criticised. My friends and I made deals, agreeing on what each of us would critique in the other.
But every child’s true fate in life ultimately depended on their ‘songbun’, a classification system that divides Korean citizens into political, social and economic groups, reflecting what their family was doing on September 9, 1948, the day the state had been created.
I knew we belonged to the superior class, the ‘loyal’ class made up of descendants of those who fought the Japanese during the occupation, thanks to our paternal grandfather who had fought in the 1930s.
We did know, however, that your songbun can change over the course of your lifetime. You can attain a higher class by serving your country with a heroic act – but you might also drop into a lower category if you commit an undesirable act, and your family will be affected for three generations.
In the Corps of Young Pioneers, the training organisation for future revolutionary fighters aged seven to 13, we were taught to hate.
I knew that my mother’s songbun was not as good as my father’s, but I didn’t know why. Then, when my sister was not awarded the research position in the army she’d applied for, despite having won first place in a computer programming contest, I learned the truth.
Her father, she told us, had defected to the South during the Korean War. He, too, had been a landowner and there was no place in the party for a former landowner corrupted by capitalism. Now my sister understood why she hadn’t been given the army job: it was because tainted blood of a deserter ran through her veins.
The party was ditching us. We were cursed.
Jihyun Park poses for a photograph after deciding to stand for election as a Conservative party candidate in the upcoming local elections in the Moorside Ward in Bury
One afternoon in 1984, the year I turned 16, my brother, my sister and I had just come home from school when the building manager knocked on our door and told us to head back.
A traitor had just been arrested and was about to be punished.
We hurried back to school, where Teacher lined us up and led us to the Rabook River, where a large crowd had gathered. I could see they’d erected a post on a stretch of sand below the bridge.
Suddenly, an army Jeep drove up, and policemen pulled out a hooded man. Clearly weak, he could barely walk. They tied the man to the post. Three soldiers lined up in front of him, each with a rifle on his shoulder.
‘What did he do?’ shouted the people standing around us.
‘I think he killed a cow!’
‘A cow? Who would dare do such a thing? Let him die!’
Shots rang out. Each of the three soldiers shot him in the head, the chest and the knees. With each shot, the man slumped a little more. After untying him from the post, they rolled him up in some sacking, then loaded him into a car.
As we watched them drive away, it occurred to me that anyone could be executed. That it could be me.
My gut seized with fear, but I stood there silent and stoic, just like the 5,000 people around me.
The walk home was hell. It felt like the ground was collapsing under the weight of our guilty consciences.
Back at home, our parents didn’t speak, even though they had just returned from the same spectacle.
Nor did we speak when, in a latenight raid a few years later, police handcuffed and led away the Nams, the family in Flat One.
The next morning, I heard Mrs Choi, the building manager, talking in the corridor. I cracked open the door of our flat and listened.
‘It’s about her husband,’ Mrs Choi was saying to the group of women gathered around her.
‘A few days ago, he drank too much and criticised the party, blaming it for how poor he is. Criticising the state, that’s a serious crime. That’s why they arrested the whole family. Guilty by association.’
Hiding under my blankets that night, I cried. I’d grown up with the Nams. They were a happy family. One beer, a few misplaced words and five lives were ruined.
North Korean Red Cross workers monitoring the distribution of rice and vegetable oil provided by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Unpa County, some 150 km south of Pyongyang
In September 1991, when I was 23, I started teaching maths at a high school. The 1990s would be one of the worst decades North Korea had ever known.
The Soviet Union, on which we were heavily dependent, collapsed. Diesel for cooking stoves ran out. Oil lamps replaced electric light bulbs. We had to count on the black market for food and were forced to draw our water from the river.
This was the beginning of a famine the state dubbed The March of Suffering, and it would last for ten years. My pupils came to school hungry. They no longer smiled. My class numbers fell dramatically. Some of them died.
People were forced to trade their homes for a kilo or two of rice or corn. Entire families found themselves on the street.
The stench of deadbodies, people publicly executed for stealing food – these things became part of our daily life.
My father had a heart attack and was forced to stop working.
My mother ran a stall in the market and would be gone for weeks at a time, trying to buy goods to sell – many of them, like Chinese cigarettes, on the black market.
But we fell deeper and deeper into debt and creditors came to empty our flat of our few remaining possessions.
One day, my mother left, talking about a distant cousin in China who could help. She didn’t return. I searched for food on the mountainsides to feed my father, gathering anything – roots, plants, mushrooms, bark – that could be ground up to serve as a base for broth. But by June 1997, even the hills had nothing left to offer: the villagers had stripped them bare.
Yet, no matter how hard I’d tried to resist it, I’d been brainwashed.
Like a machine that’s been programmed at the factory and won’t stop, I heard myself say: ‘This is the West’s fault! They are the ones who imposed sanctions on us! We live in a socialist country, where no one should die of hunger!’
My father had another heart attack, and the food I managed to scavenge was not enough to restore his strength. When my brother deserted from the army and became a fugitive from the authorities, we knew we too had to go.
I wrote my father a long note, placed a bowl of rice beside him, along with a pair of clean pyjamas, and we paid a people-smuggler to take us – my brother, sister, brother-in-law and niece – across the Tumen River into China.
We located our mother, but our reunion was not exactly what I had prepared myself for: she was living in a small house in the country – with a new husband.
But that wasn’t even the worst surprise. I soon discovered that the only reason we could afford our escape was because I was to be sold in marriage to a Chinese man.
My mother and sister had cooked up the plan. The broker to whom they delivered me first raped me, then took me to a market where people bought wives and workers.
I was sold for the modest sum of 5,000 yuan, the equivalent of about £1,000 today – of which, I later discovered, my family only received 1,000 yuan, or £200.
Taken by my husband, Seong-ho, to his family’s squalid house in a village at the foot of a mountain range near the Russian border, I was put to work as a farmhand and regularly beaten. Before long, I was pregnant.
I resisted the suggestion of an illegal abortion and, little by little, an idea began to take shape. This child would save me by creating a space for happiness in me, even in the midst of misery. We would go on this journey together. On April 20, 1999, I gave birth to a boy, and I named him Chul. The name means iron: strong as iron to face this pitiless world. Seeing his little face filled me with happiness.
From then on, he was my only reason for living. In the ensuing years I would live in secret, hiding with my child and my drunken husband before, finally, I was arrested as an illegal immigrant – and, to my horror, deported to the city of my birth. I was held in a prison camp for three months, released only when gravely ill and expected to die from sickness and starvation. As for my son, I’d been forced to leave him in China with my husband’s family. But I didn’t die; somehow I recovered.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivering a closing address at the Sixth Conference of Cell Secretaries of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang in 2021
After a year, I once again sold myself to a middleman and took the risk of crossing back into China across the Tumen River.
The plan was to sell me on to a Chinese trafficker and take the commission. But when we got across and I told him about my desire to find Chul, something incredible happened.
‘I can’t sell you if you have a child,’ he said calmly, lighting a cigarette. ‘Go and find him yourself.’
And so I did. I succeeded in kidnapping Chul on March 18, 2005 – and then set out for a third escape, this time from China itself. We headed for Beijing and joined a group of North Koreans who wanted to cross the Gobi Desert to get to Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital, to seek asylum at the South Korean Embassy
At the Mongolian border with a group of fellow North Korean escapees, five-year-old Chul and I staggered towards a barbed wire fence as a police siren wailed. My mind flashed back to prison camp, to North Korea, to hell. I told myself that it was out of the question that my son should see me in handcuffs a second time.
Suddenly, someone grabbed Chul, threw him over his shoulder and started running for the fence. I ran, too, grabbing this stranger’s arm.
This man was called Kwang-hyun Joo, and by risking his life, he had saved ours. He could hardly have known that the 200 metres he had just run were not the end but the beginning – and that he would eventually become my husband.
It was another three years of hardship and uncertainty before we landed at Heathrow, now with a second young son. We were granted political refugee status and settled in Bury. We had a third child, a daughter, I took English night classes, and in 2017 became a Conservative Party activist, standing in last year’s council elections.
I am profoundly grateful for the welcome I have been given. But as I look back now, the distant past is like a murky dream, a lost world collapsing before my eyes, swallowing up the people and places that had been most dear to me. To this day, I have no news of my family.
©Jihyun Park and Seh-lynn Chai, 2022
The Hard Road Out, by Jihyun Park and Seh-lynn Chai, is published by HarperNorth at £16.99. To order a copy for £15.29, go to mailshop. co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before June 19. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.