One woman’s life in North Korea

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Time wasn’t on Park Seong-il’s side. Weak, malnourished, and recovering from his third heart attack, he had just witnessed his brother die in his arms — and now the famine ravaging Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea seemed set to claim him, too. 

His wife, Ro-Eun sook, was being chased by creditors and had disappeared completely while his son was wanted by the military for desertion. If one of them got caught or arrested, then they all would suffer the same fate.

Seong-il begged Jiyhun, his daughter and his full-time caregiver, to escape — even though it meant leaving him behind.

“There was silence,” writes Jihyun Park in “The Hard Road Out: One Woman’s Escape From North Korea” (Harper North). “An unbearable silence that no one dared to break for a long time.” Prior to leaving, Jihyun Park wrote her father a letter, which she remembers, verbatim, to this day: “Dearest Father, whom I have loved more than anything in this world, I have to leave you.”

Map of North Korea
Park was born in Chonjin on North Korea’s east coast.
Getty Images

In the book, Park tells the story of her attempts to flee one of the most secretive and oppressive regimes in the world, not once, but twice. 

Jihyun Park was born on July 30, 1968, in Chonjin, a city on North Korea’s east coast. Like most of her countrymen, she was born into extreme poverty. She lived with her family in a tiny two-room apartment, measuring just 170 square feet, with just one blanket to share and a single light bulb used sparingly. “You had to be careful: light bulbs were rare, a gift of Kim Il-sung, and not available to everyone,” she recalls.

At school, they would have daily classes about the life of the country’s leader — the “Beloved Father” — and sing songs in his praise. Children were not permitted to celebrate their birthdays, because “only the birthday of Kim Il-sung, on April 15, is celebrated.”

A picture of Kim Il-sung.
Kim Il-sung was the leader of North Korea until 1994.
Getty Images

After lessons, Park was a member of the Corps of Young Pioneers and made to swear allegiance to Kim Il-sung (“‘Down with the Americans, destroyers of Korea!’ was the refrain”). 

Then, when she returned home, she would play ‘Kill The Americans” with her younger brother, Jeong-ho, and when it snowed, they made American snowmen before pouring hot water over them, laughing as they melted. “We were the exalted heroes of the glorious fight,” writes Park.

Occasionally, the children were taken from school to watch public executions.

An elderly North Korean woman walks with a large load of firewood she collected from the nearby hillside of Pyongsan County in North Korea Tuesday, April 22, 1997.
In the 1990s, North Korea was devastated by a famine that saw rationing, blackouts, and no running water — and up to 3 million deaths.
Associated Press

Photograph of emaciated orphans in North Korea in 1998.
Occasionally, the children were taken from school to watch public executions.
Alamy Stock Photo

“It occurred to me that anyone could be executed: that it could be me,” she writes. “Back at home, our parents didn’t speak either, even though they had just returned from watching the same spectacle. My mother served dinner as usual, and then we all went to bed.

“We never spoke of what we had just seen.”

While her childhood was all any North Korean child had known, adulthood brought unimaginable hardship. In the 1990s, North Korea was devastated by a famine — state propaganda called it the “Arduous March” — that saw rationing, blackouts and no running water — and up to 3 million deaths.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il poses with his first-born son Kim Jong Nam, in this 1981 family photo in Pyongyang, North Korea.
While families in power thrived, the majority of the North Korean population lived in severe poverty.
Getty Images

As people died in the street, the military was called in to execute those people caught stealing food. Park, now a teacher, would also find one of her pupils, a 13-year-old boy called Lee Seung-Chul, dead against a wall in the local market. He is “the little barefoot boy who still haunts me to this day,” she writes.

Another victim was Park’s uncle. “If anyone asked, we told them that my uncle died of measles, that he had caught the childhood disease in later life,” writes Park. “One does not die of hunger in a socialist country.”

Park never saw her again.

Jihyun Park
Today, Jihyun Park lives in Bury, a small, industrial town near Manchester in the northwest of England.
Alamy Stock Photo

As her father’s health deteriorated, Park gave up her job as a teacher to look after him — but with neither food nor money, the future was bleak. “The idea of abandoning the children broke my heart, but the idea of having to beg food was even worse,” she writes.

And all the time, Park blamed the West for her situation. “No matter how hard I tried to resist it, I’d been brainwashed,” she now reflects.

By 1997, Park was left to look after her father on her own. Her mother had borrowed money, but unable to repay the loans, the debt collectors had started removing furniture and kitchen equipment from their home. In a bid to escape, she fled to China, telling Park she was going to visit a cousin and make some money.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Kim Jong Un is North Korea’s current leader.

On February 18, 1997, Jihyun Park left North Korea and headed through the mountains and across the border to China. Assured by a middleman that there would be well-paid work when she arrived, she was instead taken to the northern Chinese province of Heilongjiang and sold into a forced marriage for 5,000 yuan (around US $700). 

Her new husband, Seong-ho Kim, was a 46-year-old farmer, a Chinese of North Korean descent. He was also an alcoholic and a gambler. He set her to work in the fields, paying her only rice and forbidding her from talking to the other North Korean women who lived in the village. 

Work, housekeeping, and sex were all he wanted from her and, in the summer of 1998, she became pregnant. But as the baby would have no civil status and would be another mouth they could ill afford to feed, Park was ordered to have an abortion. 

Instead, Park hid her pregnancy by wearing ever looser clothing.

 Kim Il Sung chats with workers on an unofficial visit to the Hichun Machine Plant.
Kim Il-sung is shown here greeting citizens — meanwhile, millions of people died of starvation.
Getty Images

On 20 April, 1999, Park gave birth to a son. “It was a boy and I named him Chul. The name means iron: strong as iron to face this pitiless world,” she writes. “He was my child of hope, and from then on my only reason for living.”

Her husband suggested selling the baby to pay off his gambling debts. With no money, a young child, and a husband in name only, life had become intolerable for Jihyun Park.

But on April 21, 2004, it became even worse. At 10 pm, she was taken from her home by 10 Chinese policemen. A neighbor had informed the authorities about her illegal status in the country, and now she would be deported back to North Korea by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

She had a choice. She could leave 5-year-old Chul in China and risk never seeing him again — or take him with her and, in all likelihood, leave him to starve to death while she spent the rest of her life in prison. She left him with Seong-ho. “I have never in my life felt such despair,” she writes.

Following two weeks in a high-security prison on Tumen near the Chinese-North Korean border, Park was moved to a labor camp in her birthplace, Chongjin. Each day began at 4:30 am and ended at 11 pm with Park dragging a plough full of fertilizer across the dry fields all day in her bare feet. 

Painting of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in North Korea
At school, children would have daily classes about the life of the country’s leader — the “Beloved Father” (Kim Il-sung, depicted here) — and sing songs in his praise.
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

In 2004, though, a cut on her foot became infected and, soon, gangrenous. “Over time my leg became darker and darker, until it was almost black,” she recalls. “The guards told me I was going to die soon.” 

A prisoner that couldn’t work was worthless, and Park was thrown out onto the streets to die. Hungry and homeless, she sought refuge at a local orphanage where the boss helped her to recover. “He applied a white powder to my leg every day,” she says. “To this day, I don’t know what the powder was, but it worked nonetheless.”

Her recovery was the boost Park needed to find her son, Chul. With the help of another trafficker, she waded across the Tumen river and through the mountains into China, tracking her son down to her husband’s parents’ home.

On March 18, 2005, she was finally reunited with her son, “kidnapping” him with the intention of joining a group of other defectors and heading across the Gobi Desert to the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, where they would seek asylum at the South Korean embassy. 

They didn’t make it.

A boy pushes a cart of cabbage along a main road in Hyangsan county, North Pyongan, North Korea.
“If anyone asked, we told them that my uncle died of measles, that he had caught the childhood disease in later life,” writes Park. “One does not die of hunger in a socialist country.”

Pursued by police and unable to carry Chul, Park was assisted by one of the group, Kwang-hyun Joo, who threw her son over his shoulder and helped them to safety. Together they would spend three days in the Gobi Desert before the freezing conditions made them turn back. 

They would settle in Beijing, lying low for a while — Park’s excellent Chinese allowed them to easily blend in — before applying for refugee status at the UN embassy. Their status was granted in 2007, and they began to plan a new life together. 

Today, 14 years after she left Beijing to seek asylum in the United Kingdom, Jihyun Park, 54, lives in Bury, a small, industrial town near Manchester in the north-west of England. She married Kwang, the man who saved her, and lives with him and their two sons (including Chul, who is studying accounting at university in London) and a daughter.

When she arrived there in 2008, Park couldn’t speak any English — but in 2021, she stood in a local election to be a town counselor, the first person of North Korean descent to stand for political office in the UK. She works with fellow North Korean defectors, earning an award from Amnesty International in 2020.

To this day, Park has no idea what became of her mother or her brother.

And while she assumes her father died soon after she left North Korea, she has never known exactly what happened to him. It’s as she says in the final line of her letter to him: “If I never see you again, you know that I will never forgive myself.”

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