'I escaped the horrors of North Korea – now I want to solve Bury's fly-tipping crisis'

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·7-min read

Watch: North Korea defector Jihyun Park on standing for election in Bury

She escaped unimaginable human rights abuses and now, as a local election candidate in Bury, is believed to be the first North Korean to stand in a democratic vote anywhere outside the Korean peninsula.

It’s a remarkable story. But Jihyun Park is just as keen to talk about Bury’s "horrible" fly-tipping crisis.

In Thursday's local elections, Park will stand for a seat in the council's Moorside ward, where she has lived since 2008 after escaping an unthinkable cycle of torture, imprisonment and human trafficking.

In prison in North Korea, the conditions were so bad that her body was literally rotting. She “smelt like a dead person”, Park recalls in an interview with Yahoo News UK.

Now a UK citizen, Park, who is standing to be a Conservative councillor on what is currently a Labour-run authority, is delighted to be involved in the routine trappings of local politics – such as campaigning against fly-tipping.

Jihyun Park, who fled North Korea before settling in Britain, 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, Britain, March 22, 2021. Picture taken March 22, 2021. REUTERS/Phil Noble
Jihyun Park is standing for election as a Conservative candidate in Bury's Moorside ward. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

She says: “I’m very excited because I’ve lived in Moorside for 13 years. I know my neighbours, their problems.”

Park lists housing, poor cleanliness and bin collections as the area's main problems, claiming Labour “only shout in the election times”.

“I deliver my [election leaflets] to the houses and a lot of [rubbish] is left behind in the gardens," she says.

"Many people put the rubbish there and it is dodgy, but the council never cares about that. It is horrible.”

For a North Korean, the very notion of standing against different parties remains a novelty. “In North Korea we didn’t know the meaning of a political party,” Park says.

“But over here we have different parties and the people choose those parties. We get to speak out... it’s very exciting.”

Jihyun Park, who fled North Korea before settling in Britain, talks with a local resident while out delivering leaflets after deciding to stand for election as a Conservative party candidate in the upcoming local elections in the Moorside Ward in Bury, Britain, March 22, 2021. Picture taken March 22, 2021. REUTERS/Phil Noble
Jihyun Park on the campaign trail in Bury. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

Park and her younger brother first escaped North Korea in 1998, crossing the border to China. She thought life would be better, but was preyed on by human traffickers.

Life in China, she says, “was slavery” for six years. Meanwhile, she was separated from her brother, who was sent back to North Korea. She has not seen him since.

Park herself was sent back in 2004, being separated from her infant son in the process, after the Chinese authorities got wind she was a North Korean refugee.

Back in the country of her birth, she was imprisoned, suffering starvation and torture. Prisoners, she recalls, were forced to work from morning until dark with no shoes and no access to toilets.

On the verge of death a few months later having developed gangrene, Park was actually released. “Police told me I cannot die in prison, [but that] ‘you will die outside anyway.’”

Park, however, survived, saying she was nursed back to health by a stranger who then helped her escape across the Chinese border once again.

Happily, she was reunited with her son. After subsequently managing to flee China, it was the start of her path to the UK, and freedom, in Bury in 2008.

Here, she says, “every day is a great day for me – happiness and dreams”.

It’s the simple freedoms, unimaginable in North Korea, that Park enjoys: “You relax in the morning, watch the news, have a coffee on the table, speak with my family. It’s amazing. Heaven.”

Her traumatic past still comes up, though. She “never thought about” it until 2012, when her son unexpectedly asked of the time they were separated in 2004: “Mummy, why did you leave me?”

“He asked me this question and when I heard it I cried, because I never abandoned my child. But this question is not only my son’s question, this question is all North Korean children’s questions who have been separated from their families.

North Korean-born Jihyun Park, who fled to the UK 13 years ago and is now standing as a Conservative Party candidate for up-coming local council elections, poses for a photograph in Bury, northwest England, February 6, 2021. - Jihyun Park shares the civic concerns of any other would-be town councillor in Britain, from local education to potholes in the roads. But she is unique in one regard: no other candidate has fled North Korea. Park is believed to be the first defector from the oppressive state to have run for office in any country, other than South Korea, after fleeing human trafficking in China and the brutal privations of a North Korean prison camp. (Photo by Lindsey Parnaby / AFP) (Photo by LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP via Getty Images)
Jihyun Park is believed to be the first North Korean to stand for election outside the Korean peninsula. (Lindsey Parnaby/AFP via Getty Images)

“There are many voiceless people. They are waiting for someone’s voice. I want to stand up and speak out about my stories.”

Park adds that every time she sleeps “there is usually a nightmare” about her past life. “Usually I dream I am in North Korea and then I wake up and my whole body is shaking. But that is only dreams, and for 25 million people that is real life, so I never complain.”

She also compares her experience as a human trafficking victim to those of women who suffered domestic violence during the coronavirus lockdown.

“When I speak out many people send me messages or hug me. That helps solve my problems. Victims need listeners. That’s why I am standing in my local community, because many females are victims of domestic violence. They need someone to listen.”

Of being the first North Korean to stand for election outside the Korean peninsula, Park plays it down. “It’s amazing but I am now a British citizen. I want to protect my neighbours. They are also family.

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“When I came to the UK they helped me, I didn’t know any English. We had gas problems, electric problems, but they kindly helped us. I want to pay them back.”

Park, who says she is standing for the Tories because of the “Conservative values” of “justice, freedom and happiness”, adds: “I want to protect my local families first. If families have problems, they never bring happiness and dreams home. That is my first [priority].

“And also the recycling issues. Someone is not doing the recycling.”

What is Moorside like – and does Park stand a chance of being elected?

Moorside is one of 17 wards on Bury Council, with each one having three councillors. At Thursday's poll, two of Moorside's three seats will be available.

But outgoing councillor Annette McKay believes it will be a difficult task for Park as the area traditionally backs Labour.

Jihyun Park, who fled North Korea before settling in Britain, delivers leaflets to local houses after deciding to stand for election as a Conservative party candidate in the upcoming local elections in the Moorside Ward in Bury, Britain, March 22, 2021. Picture taken March 22, 2021. REUTERS/Phil Noble
One outgoing councillor said Jihyun Park, pictured, is 'quite up against it' as a Conservative candidate in traditionally Labour-backing Moorside. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

“She’s quite up against it” is the verdict of McKay, who was elected as a Labour candidate but became an independent in 2018 after accusing the local party of bullying and “intolerable behaviour”. Labour denied the claims.

If Park does get elected, McKay tells Yahoo News UK she will have a number of issues to contend with.

She says the area’s Clarence Park is a hotbed of antisocial behaviour, while violent crime has been an issue: 18-year-old boxer Cole Kershaw was shot dead in Chesham Road in August last year. Three men were convicted of his murder last month.

Cole Kershaw was murdered in August last year. (Greater Manchester Police)
Cole Kershaw was murdered in August last year. (Greater Manchester Police)

McKay also says it’s a “divided ward: at one end it’s quite prosperous, at the other end there’s a lot of poor-quality housing”.

She agrees with Park about the fly-tipping problem, which McKay says has cost the council about £1m a year.

She says: “You only have to walk around Moorside to see why that is. It never seems to be solvable. People seem OK to throw a sofa in the backstreet.

"I expect she would find it’s pretty disgusting in some places.”

McKay, having met Park as she campaigned, adds of her candidacy: "Her story is absolutely inspirational, she has overcome so many obstacles and seems a very determined person.

"If you’ve overcome stuff that we can’t possibly even imagine, I think she’ll be tenacious enough to do what she wants to do as a councillor.”

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