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North Koreans in U.S., Britain express hope after leaving 'repressive state'

More North Koreans are resettling in the West, where they are active as human rights advocates or political consultants. File Photo by Yonhap/EPA-EFE
More North Koreans are resettling in the West, where they are active as human rights advocates or political consultants. File Photo by Yonhap/EPA-EFE

NEW YORK, Feb. 11 (UPI) -- More North Koreans who fled their country are settling in the West, where they say an opportunity to speak their minds is molding future plans.

Their attitudes about the "refreshing" democratic norms of their adopted homelands contrast sharply with the prevailing mood in the United States and Britain, where political polarization has led to distrust and anger.

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Jihyun Park, 52, a human rights activist based in Britain, told UPI by phone she is engaged in council elections in her hometown of Bury in the Greater Manchester area.

Park, who is running for councilor under Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative party, said Britain's system of elections are a source of inspiration.

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"In North Korea we had one-party rule and orders from above," Park said. "We had no voice in North Korea."

The mother of two children -- one in a university -- Park left North Korea twice. She escaped again after being forcibly repatriated to the North from China and surviving torture and disease in a North Korean prison camp, where she was forced to work with bleeding bare feet.

The defector, who resettled in Britain in 2008, said she was compelled to run in council elections scheduled for May after she saw firsthand the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on her community.

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"The opportunity to participate in politics is equally available to all here," Park said.

North Korea's caste system

Opportunities for personal advancement are rare in North Korea and depend heavily on family background, defectors say.

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Hyun Seung Lee, a former member of the Korean Workers' Party who resettled in the Washington D.C., area with his family in 2016, told UPI that North Korea's caste system surfaces during major life events, such as when residents seek admission to the ruling party.

"North Korea's caste system exists," Lee said, referring to the institution known as "songbun" in Korean. "But in day-to-day life, people don't bring it up."

Lee, 36, said he underwent a North Korean audit of his extended family that included class background checks of his grandfather. If authorities were to find relatives who have family in South Korea or aided the enemy during the 1950-53 Korean War, they would bar the candidate from joining the Party.

Being a member of the Party opens opportunities for advancement unavailable to the rest of the population.

Before defecting from China in 2014, Lee went on to become a member of the elite, serving as deputy general manager at Korea Miyang Shipping Corp., a state-owned enterprise.

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His father, Ri Jong Ho, was the former head of the Korea Daehung Trading Corp., managed by Room or Office 39, a fund reserved exclusively for Kim Jong Un.

Giving back to a new homeland

Park, who said she did not speak English when she arrived in Britain, also said the chance to run for councilor, and serve, is a way of giving back to the country that helped her begin a new life after she escaped from the North Korean "slave state."

Britain's Tories, and Johnson in particular, have stoked fears of "mass migration," but Park said it is the voices of refugees and their participation that is more important in politics.

"Rather than standing in the back and muttering our complaints, we must make it possible for our voices to be heard and integrated into policy," Park said.

Park and Lee are rarities among the North Korean diaspora. Most refugees resettle in South Korea, where there are now about 34,000 defectors, according to government data. Last year in Seoul, a former North Korean diplomat ran for office and was elected to a seat in the National Assembly.

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About 200 legally admitted North Korean refugees are in the United States, and about 600 such refugees in Britain.

Lee, who last year launched the YouTube channel "Pyonghattan" with his sister, said his new life in the United States affords him a chance to correct misperceptions about North Korea.

Lee and his sibling, who appear polished and professional on video, talk about their personal experiences as former members of the Pyongyang elite or explore secrets of the Kim regime.

"I [also] share my insights with analysts at U.S. think tanks," Lee said. "Because if North Koreans cannot figure out the North Korea problem, that problem cannot be figured out."

Lee said he watched from home the storming of the U.S. Capitol building in January and worried about polarization in his new home.

"Different sides should listen to voices of opposition, but they seem to be ignoring those voices," Lee said, addressing both U.S. political parties.

Park, who has been monitoring U.S. politics on the sidelines, said that while she identifies as a conservative in Britain, she welcomes the decision of the Democratic Biden administration to appoint a special representative on North Korea human rights at the State Department.

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Former President Donald Trump scrapped the position after friendly overtures toward the North Korean leader.

"Human dignity, freedom, these were values I did not know in North Korea," Park said. "That's why I was at the receiving end of rights abuses."

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