LONDON – When she was young and it had snowed overnight, Park Ji Hyun would go outside and build a snowman. Then she would pour a kettle of boiling water over its head to destroy it.
In her game, the snowman was an American, and thus a deadly enemy of her country, North Korea, and its beloved leader, Kim Il Sung.
Park, now 49, no longer thinks so highly of the Kim family dictatorship. The women’s rights activist and two-time escapee has spent the last 10 years living in Britain.
Sitting in a cafe in New Malden, a quiet suburb on the outskirts of London that is home to more than 10,000 South Koreans and the largest number of North Koreans in Europe, she tells the long, sad tale of her journey.
After her uncle died of starvation in a devastating famine that, according to Human Rights Watch, killed at least 1 million people in the 1990s, Park fled to China. She was quickly sold by a broker into a marriage where she was sexually abused and treated like a slave.
After secretly bearing a son, she was captured by the Chinese authorities and repatriated alone to a labor camp, where she was forced to work until her leg became so badly infected that she was thrown out to die.
Instead, she escaped into China again to reclaim her son and moved to Beijing, where they lived in fear of capture until 2008, when a Korean-American pastor helped them find their way to the United Nations and a new life in Britain.
“I think North Korea is the 21st-century Holocaust,” Park said. “My uncle died of starvation. … My neighbors, they died of starvation. But nobody remembers.”
She is writing a memoir about her experiences and also works for Connect North Korea, a charity working through a newly opened community center to raise public awareness of North Korean refugees and provide welfare services to help them assimilate into British life.
North Korean refugees face major hurdles to life in Britain, says charity founder Michael Glendinning, such as learning English and developing job skills, “because the work North Koreans often do inside North Korea is not any use within our kind of society.”
Many North Koreans end up living in New Malden and working as manual laborers for South Korean companies, leaving them with few opportunities to assimilate or advance their careers, Glendinning said.
Official figures put the number of North Korean refugees in Britain at around 650, although he says there could be anywhere up to 1,000. He says only 30 or so North Korean refugees now enter the country each year, in comparison to 80 or 90 a decade ago.
While Park was provided with refugee status and has subsequently become a citizen, she says others have not found it so easy, and criticizes the British government for not taking more North Korean refugees.
Markus Bell, a lecturer at Sheffield University, claims the British government is not accepting North Korean refugees who arrive via South Korea as genuine asylum-seekers because they are considered to have default citizenship in South Korea.
“Of course, the current sentiment on immigration and refugee issues probably doesn’t make for a conducive environment,” Glendinning said. In a poll published in the immediate aftermath of Britain’s referendum on whether to leave the European Union, 33 percent of leave voters said the primary reason for their decision was to have better immigration control.
In response to questions about Britain’s stance on North Korean refugees, a spokesperson for the British Home Office said, “The U.K. has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection and every case is assessed on its individual merits.”
Glendinning is also the founder of Korea Future Initiative, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for human rights in North Korea and provides assistance to vulnerable escapees in China and Southeast Asia.
The organization recently released a report on sexual violence against North Korean women, finding that far from being a self-professed “heaven for women,” North Korea is in fact “a theater of extensive, although unquantified, misogyny and sexual violence.”
Park supports American President Donald Trump’s aggressive stance toward Kim Jong Un, the current leader of North Korea, and says South Korean President Moon Jae-in is mistaken in his softer approach.
She thinks the upcoming summit between Trump and Kim planned for May could be a good way to highlight the plight of those still living in North Korea.
“Trump invited North Korean refugees to the White House to hear about their stories, and I think that’s a good thing,” she says. “If they can talk about North Korean human rights, that could help the people there.”