Remarkable journey of North Korean defector Jihyun Park to stand in UK's local elections

Ms Park twice escaped from North Korea before settling in Britain

North Korean-born Jihyun Park stood as a Conservative Party candidate. AFP
North Korean-born Jihyun Park stood as a Conservative Party candidate. AFP

A North Korean defector who escaped the secretive kingdom and spent years adapting to a new life stood as a candidate in the local UK elections as a thank you to the country she now calls home.

Jihyun Park was imprisoned in North Korean labour camps and preyed on by human traffickers before making her way to Britain in 2008.

More than a decade later, she ran as a Conservative candidate in Bury, north-west England, out of gratitude for the country that granted her asylum.

“I am deeply grateful to the UK people for warmly welcoming my family, guaranteeing my life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she said on the eve of polling day.

“In return for this help, I want to serve the UK, so I stand up as a councillor and try my best to do what I can to help the UK and its citizens.”

In her failed bid to become a councillor for the ward of Moorside she was up against considerable odds, in a district usually won by Labour.

Ms Park was the first known person of North Korean descent to stand for election in Britain.

When she arrived in the UK in 2008, she spoke no English and had endured horrific treatment at the hands of North Korean authorities.

After escaping North Korea for a first time, in 1998, she travelled into China where she was sold into a forced marriage by human traffickers.

Following six years in China, during which time she gave birth to a son, she was returned to North Korea and separated from her child.

Back in North Korea, she says, she was imprisoned in a labour camp until guards threw her out after she developed gangrene and left her to die.

But she managed to journey back across the border to China and reunite with her son, before travelling to Mongolia and meeting a fellow defector who became her husband.

In 2008, the family was granted asylum in Britain and settled in Bury.

“When I arrived in the UK in 2008, I couldn't speak any English, but people were so kind and welcoming,” she later said.

“I cried and cried tears of happiness because, in North Korea, I didn't feel welcome, but in the UK, people made me feel at home.”

Jihyun Park on the campaign trail in Bury ahead of the local elections. Reuters 
Jihyun Park on the campaign trail in Bury ahead of the local elections. Reuters 

After moving to Britain, Ms Park learned English, worked as a language tutor and human rights activist, and joined the Conservatives in 2016.

She told Reuters in March that the Tories’ emphasis on family values appealed to her despite the party’s immigration-sceptic platform.

“Britain taught me what is freedom, and what is human. So that’s why I want to help,” she said.

Other escapees have forged political careers in democratic South Korea.

Thae Yong Ho, who was once the North’s deputy ambassador to London, became the first to be directly elected by South Korean voters last year following his defection in 2016.

Tories celebrate Hartlepool win as 'Super Thursday' verdict comes in

The count in Bury came as results from Britain’s “Super Thursday” local elections started coming in across the country.

The Conservatives made a landmark gain by winning a parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool, a constituency which Labour had held since 1974.

Hartlepool is the latest seat in Labour's former "red wall" - a swathe of working-class constituencies which were once Labour heartlands - to defect to the Conservatives in recent years.

Results from council and mayoral elections also showed the Conservatives making gains.

"It's a very encouraging set of results so far," Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters on a celebratory visit to Hartlepool.

"What this election shows is that people want a party and a government that is focused on them, focused on delivering change.

With Labour licking its wounds, party leader Sir Keir Starmer said the party had failed to "set out a strong enough case to the country".

"I am bitterly disappointed in the results and I take full responsibility for the result and I will take full responsibility for fixing things," he told reporters.

Labour had hoped to land a blow on Mr Johnson's government by highlighting allegations of sleaze that surfaced in the final weeks of the campaign.

But the outcome suggests that Mr Johnson enjoyed a "vaccine bounce" in the polls, even after Britain suffered one of the world's worst death tolls from Covid-19.

Labour was expected to hold its ground in mayoral races in London and Manchester, but those results are not due until Saturday.

In Scotland, where the results of Thursday’s election could hasten the push for Scottish independence, counting was under way on Friday.

However, the full picture will not become clear until Saturday when the regional vote is tallied.

Updated: May 8, 2021 02:19 AM

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