In 1998, when North Korea was in the grip of a famine that eventually killed up to 1 million people, Ji-hyun Park’s father told her to take her brother and run. Park, then 30, escaped to neighboring China, today the destination for many North Koreans fleeing the repressive, abusive regime back home. However, she became the victim of trafficking. Forced into marriage, she lived as little more than a slave, under the constant threat of being repatriated to North Korea.
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea estimated in 2014 that a large percentage of women and girls who enter China unaccompanied end up being trafficked for forced marriage or sex work. Those who are caught by Chinese police are often sent back to North Korea, where they face certain punishment – including torture and arbitrary detention in labor camps. Women have also reported being subjected to forced abortion, infanticide and rape. Even after their release, many can’t find a way to survive in North Korea, so they return to China despite the risks.
Park spoke with Women & Girls Hub about her ordeal, the nightmares that haunt her and the responsibility she feels to share her story.
Women & Girls Hub: How did you became a victim of human trafficking?
Ji-hyun Park: In February 1998, I left North Korea for the first time because of the famine. My uncle died of starvation. My father was sick, but there was no medicine available at the hospital. He told me to leave the country with my brother. I left my father dying alone in a cold room, because those were his last wishes.
In China, the broker who was helping us said, “If you want to save your brother you need money, and for money you have to marry a Chinese man.” At first I said, I can’t marry a Chinese man. “If you can’t, we just repatriate you and your brother,” he said. I was so scared. If we were repatriated, my brother would be sent to a prison camp or be executed. So I didn’t have a choice.
One day, five or six people came to look at me. Different ages get different prices – younger women in their 20s got 10,000 yuan ($1,500), but women in their 30s get 5,000–8,000 yuan ($800–1,200). At that time I was 30, so the price I got was not so high. I was sold for 5,000 Chinese yuan ($800). But I couldn’t save my brother. We were separated because the Chinese man didn’t need my brother.
Women & Girls Hub: What was life like after you were married off?
Park: When North Korean women married Chinese men, we were not family. We were just slaves.
When I arrived at the village, I was so surprised. [The house] was very dirty, the toilet was collapsed and the smell came into the house. It was very difficult for me.
Women & Girls Hub: What happened to you in China? How long were you there?
Park: I lived there for almost six years. My son was born in 1999. After two years, I was arrested by the police of the village. They sometimes arrested North Korean women because they needed money. But my Chinese family didn’t have money. So the police said, “You can sell your son because many people want a son.” I was shocked. My husband wanted to sell my son. I really hated him. I wanted to leave him. But when I went back to ask the broker for help, he told me, “You have no identity card, so you can’t rent a house and you can’t leave your husband.”
In 2004, I was arrested and repatriated to North Korea. My son was left in China. I spent six months in a North Korean labor camp, and my leg was hurt [due to gangrene]. The police said I couldn’t survive with that leg, so they released me. I found myself homeless and helpless, begging on the street and seeking refuge at an orphanage for street children. A herbal doctor saw me on the street and started to secretly treat my leg and eventually the gangrene healed.
My son was in China, so I eventually found another broker. We walked 400km [250 miles] across the mountains. My leg was not fully recovered, but I thought only about my son. We arrived late at night at the house. The broker helped me contact my son. I was so lucky; this time the broker was very kind.
Women & Girls Hub: Was your plan to try to make a life in China?
Park: I couldn’t stay in China. I could have been repatriated again and maybe this time I would never see my son. We wanted to go to South Korea, so we went to the embassy in Beijing, but they didn’t help us. In 2007, we went to Mongolia, but this was not successful. In 2008 [it was] a dangerous time before the Beijing Olympics; China was repatriating all illegals. I was very scared, but I met a Korean-American pastor who helped us.
Women & Girls Hub: You eventually ended up in the U.K. How is the trauma you went through still affecting you?
Park: In my dreams, I see the cold room where my father took his last breath as I left North Korea. I also see my younger sibling, who was repatriated back to North Korea. I dream of being chased by Chinese authorities, of being repatriated and sent to forced labor. After these terrible dreams, my body is sweaty and I am filled with guilt, of not being able to stay with my father for his passing, and for my brother. These dreams I have every night.
Women & Girls Hub: Did you receive counseling or help to cope with what you had gone through?
Park: No one helped us. I still have problems with nightmares and my leg. When I went to the hospital in the U.K. about my injured leg and explained what happened, they could not understand. North Korean women suffer from many different health problems.
At first, I didn’t speak about my experience. Then I was part of a short documentary, but I hid my name and face. But then my son said, “Mommy, I want to ask you one question. Why did you abandon me?” When I was arrested and repatriated, he was five years old. The Chinese told him I had abandoned him. He said he counted to 100 days, but I didn’t come back. I didn’t know this.
Women & Girls Hub: But you are telling your story now…
Park: I’ve changed my mind about speaking out: I am now telling the world about North Korean human rights issues, especially for North Korean women.
Many North Korean women don’t talk about their human trafficking experience because they think it is very shameful. Some make new families in South Korea or in the U.K. They can’t share their past.
Many North Korean refugees live in the U.K. but have language problems, so I am helping with language courses and refugee issues. Myself, I am still learning about human rights. We didn’t know anything about rights in North Korea. As I was a teacher in North Korea, my dream is to teach again. Last week, I enrolled on a teaching course. I’ve found my freedom and happiness in the U.K.