It is a familiar refrain in British politics that more elected representatives should come from different backgrounds, with more diverse life experiences.
But few could lay claim to as unusual and distressing a life as Jihyun Park, the 52-year-old Conservative local council candidate for Bury who spent the first 40 years of her life running from the North Korean government.
Her long journey to the UK involved leaving her family behind, being smuggled across the border into China – twice – by human traffickers, serving years in a hard labour camp as a prisoner, and being sold into the sex slave trade.
Mrs Park, now a human rights campaigner and refugee, was born in North Hamgyong Province in the rural north of the country in the late 1960s.
“As a child, I didn’t know what it meant to have a full stomach because we were always hungry,” she says.
“The Government totally controlled our freedoms: freedom of speech, the freedom of politicians, everything. Life in North Korea was like slavery.”
Mrs Park recalls with pain the North Korean famine, which crippled the country in the 1990s after the USSR collapsed and ended financial support to the regime.
Official estimates of the number killed are uncertain, but her uncle was among hundreds of thousands who died of starvation, while she suspects her father’s death followed shortly after she and her brother decided to try and escape into China.
“Everyone saw dead bodies in the street, of their neighbours and family members,” she said.
“I left my ill father alone in the cold dining room. I still don’t know when he passed away or where his body is.”
Mrs Park and her brother were smuggled across the mountainous border by sex traffickers, who separated them and sold her to a Chinese farmer, for around £500.
Her brother was captured and sent back to North Korea. She never saw him again.
For five years she lived as a housewife in captivity, sheltering from the eyes of the Chinese authorities, who routinely sent defectors back across the border as political prisoners.
On being discovered, she too was returned to North Korea and imprisoned in a labour camp. “We were treated like animals,” she said.
“We worked without shoes in the mountains, and in farming areas, growing corn and beans.
“There were stones and glass everywhere, so our feet were often bleeding, and they didn’t care.”
Her release came only after a cut on her foot became so badly infected she was no longer able to walk.
“They let me go because I couldn’t work. My temperature was 40 degrees and my leg was oozing yellow fluid,” she says.
“The swelling was disgusting and my hair and skin colour changed. I looked inhuman, and they said I should not die in the prison – I should die outside.”
But outside the prison gates, and desperate to escape the country and find freedom, Mrs Park contacted another sex trafficking ring and asked them to transport her across the border again in the dead of night.
After scrambling through the mountains on her injured leg with a broker, Mrs Park got into a taxi and convinced the driver, a spy for the Chinese authorities, that she had been injured while out trekking.
The driver decided not to report them to the police, foregoing a handsome reward, and allowed them to continue their journey.
Realising that his life had been saved by the woman he planned to sell into slavery in China, the trafficker let her walk free.
“He said that I saved him and his family, who were still in North Korea. So this time, he saved me,” she said.
Now free in China but trying to leave the country, Mrs Park met the love of her life in a failed escape attempt across the Mongolian border.
“There was a two metre high fence, and Chinese police patrolling the border area,” she explains.
“I saw a police car right in front of me, and I was really scared I would be caught.
“But this man, who had already crossed the border and couldn’t find me, came back to rescue me.
“He saved me and afterwards, I fell in love with him.”
Mrs Park enlisted the help of an American-Korean pastor for her and that man – now her husband – to seek refuge in Europe through the United Nations. In January 2008, they arrived in Britain, ready to begin a new life.
But for a woman who had spent her life in captivity, the difference was stark.
“I arrived at Heathrow and I was shocked,” she recalls.
“I had learned about the history of England when I was in North Korea, and I learned that men always wore a hat, and ladies wore a dress. I had imagined that it was a really romantic country.
“But when I arrived, people were wearing the same as us – trousers and jeans, the same as Asian styles.”
Mrs Park began work on human rights and advocacy for North Korean defectors, armed with English skills and a Maths GCSE qualification.
Now she is preparing her campaign for May’s local elections, when she will stand as a Conservative candidate in Bury, Greater Manchester.
So, after a life of running from dictators, sex trafficking rings and political imprisonment, why does Jihyun want to spend life as a free woman in local politics?
“The last year has been really difficult for people all over the world,” she says.
“Every day, I sit down and hear how many people have died from Covid. That is really painful for me, because I have already seen the dead bodies piled up in North Korea.”
Mrs Park says local people “need someone to listen to their voice,” and describes the Conservative Party as a beacon of “freedom, justice and a happy life with family”.
But sidestepping a question about whether she would ever consider running to be an MP, she describes the role of councillor as less politician and more “community leader”.
“When I came to the UK, English people helped me and welcomed me, and I will always be thankful to them,” she says.
“They gave me challenges and opportunities, and a new life. “Now I can pay back the people who helped me.”
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