Jihyun Park, two-time North Korean escapee and human rights activist who survived a North Korean forced labor camp, addressed the 13th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracysee quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

For links to other speakers’ quotes, videos, livestream, and more, click here.

13th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, Monday, June 8, 2021

On life in North Korea:

“North Koreans are stripped of their individuality and turned into slaves the moment they’re born.”

“Not once in childhood did someone ask me, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ We didn’t pretend to be doctors or astronauts or movie stars. You don’t have hopes or dreams – your only thoughts are of the state.”

“We saw dead bodies lying in the streets; neighbors, kids, people I knew. But no one called it ‘starvation.’  Just ‘an illness.’ We didn’t protest or blame the government, because our whole lives we’d been trained not to.”

“Then, in 1996, my uncle died of starvation right in front of me…In the moments after his death, head lice & body lice started jumping off his body. He no longer looked like a human being, just skin and bones. It was the moment I started to question everything.”

“There is no such thing as a good life in North Korea. They are born in hell and grow up to be a slaves.”

On her first escape from North Korea:

“In 1998, I was promised a safe way out for me & my brother… When we got over the border, I realized ‘China was not greener ‘ after all – I’d been sex trafficked and sold to a Chinese man for 5,000 Yuan. My brother was arrested and sent back to North Korea. I still don’t know if he is dead or alive.”

“I gave birth to my son, alone in my bedroom, and although it was scary, I finally had something I was so desperately missing: family.”

On being stateless:

“As a North Korean woman, I never had a passport or birth certificate or ID card. It’s just one of many ways the state controls you. Without documents, you can’t leave, you can’t travel, you can’t get a job, you can’t open a bank account.”

“China still won’t acknowledge the 20,000 children born in China to a North Korean parent. I was stateless & so was my son.”

On being sent back to North Korea:

“When [my son] was 5, my worst nightmare came true. The Chinese authorities showed up, arrested me, and took me back to North Korea. I was imprisoned, tortured, and re-educated.”

On second escape from North Korea:

“What worked once could work again – and that was why I willingly & knowingly agreed to be trafficked. I sold myself to save my son.”

Full Remarks

One afternoon in 2012, my 12-year old son, while seated beside me on a bench in Manchester, turned and asked me a question that would change my life. 

“Mummy, why did you abandon me?”

I searched for an answer but couldn’t find one. Where could I possibly begin? What does he remember? 

As a victim of human trafficking, I felt disgraced and humiliated, and had many painful memories that I wanted to hide and bury in my heart.

But today, I’m an anti-human trafficking activist and a messenger for many North Korean women who you’ll never meet.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all human beings are born free and equal with the right to life, liberty, and security. 

Except in North Korea. 

North Koreans are stripped of their individuality and turned into slaves the moment they’re born. 

Not once in childhood did someone ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We didn’t pretend to be doctors or astronauts or movie stars. You don’t have hopes or dreams – your only thoughts are of the state. So we played war games – North Korea v. the Yankees. North Korea always won.

Twice a month, on the 4th & the 19th, my mom went to pick up our food rations. When there wasn’t enough to eat, the state had a simple explanation: “American Problems.” We saw dead bodies lying in the streets; neighbors, kids, people I knew. But no one called it “starvation.”  Just “an illness.” We didn’t protest or blame the government, because our whole lives we’d been trained not to.

But then, in 1996, my uncle died of starvation right in front of me. We were incredibly close – he told us nighttime stories and made us laugh. In the moments after his death, head lice & body lice started jumping off his body. He no longer looked like a human being, just skin and bones. It was the moment I started to question everything.

During this period, known as the Arduous March, more than three million North Koreans starved to death. Many North Koreans decided to risk escaping. 

I did too. In 1998, I was promised a safe way out for me & my brother.  My weak and starving father begged us to leave and, even though I knew it would be the last time I saw him, I agreed. When we got over the border, I realized “China was not greener ” after all – I’d been sex trafficked and sold to a Chinese man for 5,000 Yuan. My brother was arrested and sent back to North Korea. I still don’t know if he is dead or alive. 

For the next 6 years, I lived as a sex slave in northeast China. It’s as tragic as it is common: 80% of North Korean women who escape become victims of human trafficking and are sold to Chinese men who exploit them for labor and sex. I gave birth to my son, alone in my bedroom, and although it was scary, I finally had something I was so desperately missing: family.

The Declaration of the Rights of the Child states that every child is entitled to a nationality. As a North Korean woman, I never had a passport or birth certificate or ID card. It’s just one of many ways the state controls you. Without documents, you can’t leave, you can’t travel, you can’t get a job, you can’t open a bank account. And China still won’t acknowledge the 20,000 children born in China to a North Korean parent. I was stateless & so was my son. 

Then, when he was 5, my worst nightmare came true. The Chinese authorities showed up, arrested me, and took me back to North Korea. I was imprisoned, tortured, and re-educated. For six months, I ploughed the fields with my bare hands and thought, “how do I get back to my son?” 

What worked once could work again – and that was why I willingly & knowingly agreed to be trafficked. I sold myself to save my son. When I got over the border, I found a phone, called him and heard his voice on the other end of the phone: “Mom?”

Today I live in the UK with my husband & 3 children. There’s a lot of interest in North Korean refugees, but we can’t forget about those who are left behind. I am here today, not as Jihyun Park – but as a voice for the 25 million people still living in North Korea. The men, women, and children who are tortured, imprisoned, starved, shot, or killed. We need you to understand that there is no such thing as a good life in North Korea. They are born in hell and grow up to be a slaves. 

International leaders cannot continue to let North Korea be the exception to every rule. North Koreans deserve the right to live freely without fear of torture and persecution in whichever country they choose to live in. You can make that possible by sharing our story.

Thank you.