Ji-Hyun Park thought she could start a new life in China. She and her younger brother just barely escaped North Korea in the winter of 1998, fleeing over the frozen ground past border guards shouting at them in the night.
Park and her brother were among the first wave of North Koreans to escape their land tormented by tyranny and famine. However, “Once in China,” Park said, “I was sold into human trafficking to a Chinese man and separated from my younger brother.”
Escaping North Korea, Only To Be Enslaved in China
Park had no way of knowing that China's government refuses to recognize North Korean escapees as refugees, instead hunting them down to repatriate them to North Korea. Her 23-year-old brother was repatriated back to North Korea to face either execution or a concentration camp. Whether he was executed or survived Park still doesn’t know. Park was sold to a Chinese man whom she was forced to marry and worked as a slave on a farm.
Park later learned that 80% of North Korean refugees are female. Of this vast majority, most are sold as brides to Chinese men, and others are lured to escape their lives in North Korea only to be forced into prostitution, marriage, and other exploitative labor in China, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 report on Trafficking Persons.
80% of North Korean refugees are female.
When Park arrived at the farm, there were five other North Korean women already enslaved there. Park and the other women were abused daily and did hard labor in the fields.
“I really hated my life because I had no life,” Park said. “In North Korea, it was a very hard time. And then I cross the border because I already lost my father and I already saw my own uncle die from starvation and many starve in my area. So I left North Korea because I wanted to save my younger brother and also change my life. But in China, also same life.”
“Sometimes I wanted to suicide myself,” Park said.
Park’s Baby Brings Her Hope
Park found out she was impregnated by her abusive Chinese husband. But this was a spark of hope for Park. Maybe this child could be her dream, her home. Word got out, and Park was approached by a female Chinese captain who told Park to abort the baby. The Chinese government would not accept it, the captain said.
“I really hate this lady,” Park said. “I did not do that. After that, I made sure nobody would find out about my pregnancy.”
Park worked from dawn till dark to conceal the growing child inside. But she was scared. No one ever explained to her how to give birth, and there was no hospital for her to go to. When it was time to deliver, Park was alone in labor for 12 hours. But her baby was born. Park had a son.
Park worked from dawn till dark to conceal the growing child inside.
Because she was malnourished, Park couldn't see the natural signs of how to feed the baby.
“So I fed him sugar water,” Park said. “The next day an old lady came to my home and asked me how I fed my child. I thought I did a great thing and told her that I gave him sugar water. But this lady was very angry at me that I fed him with sugar.”
The lady then lifted the baby into Park’s arms.
“The first time he had my breast milk,” Park said, “He was so hungry. I was very happy. Very happy. You know? I just cried. Because he is my son, he is my son and my last family.”
Repatriated, Imprisoned, and Tortured
Five years later, Park was captured by Chinese police and repatriated back to North Korea in 2004.
“We are all slaves in North Korea,” Park said. “So North Korean government doesn’t like their slaves to leave to other countries because they need the slavery. So that's why the North Korean government asked the Chinese government that when they find North Koreans, they have to send back.”
Park’s son was able to stay in China, but she didn’t know when or if she would see him again.
Park cut her foot on glass one day, and an infection spread to her entire leg.
“I wanted to survive to see my son once again,” Park said. “He is my pride in life. So, every night I just shouted in my mind, ‘Please, please, please save my son.’”
Park was put in a political prison camp and tortured. The prisoners were given little food. No medicine or shoes were provided. Working out in the farm fields barefoot, the women were forced to tread over glass and sharp rocks. Park cut her foot on glass one day, and an infection spread to her entire leg. Her temperature soared, and fellow inmates told her she smelled like a dead body. Park was dying.
Park Agrees To Sex Trafficking for a Chance To See Her Son Again
But prisoners weren’t allowed to die in camp, so Park was sent to a nearby children’s home where the police checked her condition weekly. Park couldn’t walk for three months. Despite her suffering, Park used the months to plan an escape. She contacted a broker who agreed to take her back to China in exchange for selling her back into sex trafficking once over the border.
“I just had to agree,” Park said. “I have no choice. If I don't agree to him, to the human trafficking to China, maybe he speak to police. ‘She wanted to go to China!’ Maybe they arrest me again.”
Park didn’t have the money or the physical strength to find another way. She couldn’t think about what awaited her. She just had to cross first.
Park didn’t have the money or the physical strength to find another way. She just had to cross first.
After three months at the children’s home, Park managed to walk. Though far from healed, she found she could conceal her limp from the broker. At two in the morning, along with the broker, two older men, and another young woman who would also be sold into sex trafficking in China, Park escaped. The party trekked across the mountains to avoid towns and arrived at the broker’s house at nine that evening. Park didn’t tell the group about her leg, but instead tied it with shoelaces to manage the pain.
“I only thought about my son,” Park said.
To get to the broker’s house without suspicion, the party took a cab through the village. Taxi drivers in China often report North Korean escapees to the police for a reward, so the group froze when the driver asked them in Chinese where they were from. “No one could speak Chinese except me,” Park said.
The driver asked the broker seated next to him why he did not speak Chinese. Park quickly interjected saying in Chinese that he was her husband who lived in the countryside and only graduated from primary school, so he never learned to speak Chinese.
The driver then asked why the entire family was traveling. Park lifted her leg and unwrapped the shoelaces to reveal a swollen, dark, purple mass. She said she had been bitten by a snake so they were going to the hospital. “Everyone was scared to see my leg,” Park said.
Her Quick Thinking Saved Her Life
When they arrived at the broker’s house, Park explained what she told the driver to the group. The broker was amazed that she saved his life, and Park used the moment to tell him about her son.
“I told him, I have a son in here,” Park said. “I wanted to contact it to him. But he said, ‘You can't because you already promised me in North Korea you would be sold in human trafficking in here.’ I didn’t say any word. I just put my leg up and everyone was so shocked because it was so swollen and there was so much waters coming out. Then I couldn’t walk. I just sat down.”
The group was amazed that Park didn’t mention her leg. But if she had told them, they wouldn’t have let her escape with them.
You saved my life and my children’s lives. This time I save your life.
In the morning when Park woke up, the younger woman was already gone. The broker had already sold her. But he said that Park could call her son once.
“I called my son, and said ‘Son, it is mom.’ My son said one word, ‘Mom?’ And then he cried. And I cried,” Park said.
The room was silent. Everyone watched as Park wept on the phone with her son she had been separated from for seven months. Then the broker changed his mind.
"‘If you hadn’t helped us in the taxi yesterday,’ the broker told me, ‘We all would have been captured and sent back to North Korea’,” Park said. According to policy, North Korea executes anyone known to help facilitate escapes. If the broker had been repatriated, he would have been executed for his crime of getting women out of the country. “‘You saved my life and my children’s lives. This time I save your life,’ the broker told me. I am always thankful to him,” Park said.
Now sitting in her home in London smiling over GotoMeeting, Park is sweet and unassuming. But her heart is molded in the fires of her sufferings. She’s a tireless advocate against human trafficking and recently petitioned the Chinese government to end its policy of repatriating North Korean refugees to North Korea.
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