As North Korea embarks on its first party congress in 36 years, ‘supreme leader’ Kim Jong-Un is set to announce a number of economic reforms and tighten his iron-clad grip on power. It is likely to be accompanied by mass choreographed fist-pumping rallies and spectacles.
Jihyun Park has firsthand experience of the “hermit kingdom”. Born in North Korea, she lived through the famine of the late 1990s. “Three and a half million North Koreans died of famine in this period.” she tells The Independent. “I lived only worrying about what I would eat that day, and then the next day. My family died from starvation. My uncle lived alone in a rural area and because of food shortage and problems with food distribution he starved.”
Unable to afford a coffin, Ms Jihyun says her family wrapped his corpse with rice straws and carried him on an ox cart to be buried. According to Ms Jihyun, stories such as these are common in North Korea.
Education in the totalitarian state was wholeheartedly centred around and devoted towards the Kim dynasty . “The words of the Kims – both father and son – are on the walls of the classroom and we have to memorize them. Such mantras are repeated by every teacher, every hour,” she explains.
This indoctrination transcends the classroom. Jihyun says that in the 1990s, a poem written about former leader Kim Il Sung was ordered to be hung on the walls of every single home. “Everyone, man, woman and child, had to learn the poem by heart,” she recalls.
At the age of 30, Ms Jihyun and her brother escaped to China from her hometown Chongjin by the border to China. Although she had been promised a well-paid job once there, she was instead brought to a trafficking establishment. “Between 1998-2004, I spent six years in northeast China as a slave to a Chinese man. I gave birth to a son”.
But everything suddenly changed when she was arrested and repatriated back to North Korea and her son remained in China. There she spent a year in one of the country’s most harrowing detention camps. “Although I fled the North due to economic reasons, my crime was considered political betrayal,” she said. “I was imprisoned, tortured, and re-educated for six months, after which I could no longer work because of severe malnutrition, and an injury in my leg was so bad that I was released on sick bail to have it amputated.”
After a year she escaped yet again to China and there she took her son from the father’s family. She then traveled to Mongolia, and against all odds, arrived in Manchester England with her son in 2008. On the way she met her husband, a fellow North Korean defector, in China.