In October 2015, Jihyun Park launched a series of North Korean Refugee Support Projects. The project includes language classes, skills training, women’s rights workshops, and the Phoenix Internship project, a mentoring programme for young North Korean refugees in the UK.
Jihyun Park is a North Korean refugee and Project & Outreach Officer at European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea. Here she tells Migrant Voice about the new projects.
What sort of problems do North Koreans have adapting to the UK after coming from such a restrictive society?
There are over 600 North Korean refugees living in the UK, the majority of who live in the New Malden area of South West London. North Koreans are one of the most persecuted peoples in the world today. North Korea is a unique situation in terms of its governance and human rights abuses, and North Korean refugees present a unique set of challenges and adversities to overcome.
When North Koreans arrive in the United Kingdom, many are unaware of what “human rights” are, let alone that theirs have been abused! As well as suffering from the trauma of what has happened to them, many have problems with speaking English, or applying for visas.
Although there is a North Korean Residents Association in New Malden, they face many difficulties in helping refugees settle down. I know how important it is to learn English to fully integrate. If communication is absent, one cannot express their emotions, and even conversations among family members can be hindered. Therefore, I want to provide English lessons to North Korean refugees.
What opportunities did you have to learn English when you yourself came to the UK?
I settled in the UK in 2008 and wanted to learn English, so I went to Refugee Action and they referred me to a Mosque in Bury. Because of my refugee visa status I could not go to English classes offered by the college or the government.
I visited there once a week to learn English. After I received my refugee visa, I attended classes at the Bury Adult Learning Centre and in the evenings I learned English at Bury College.
Many refugees are familiar with English but for North Koreans this is the first time they have ever heard the English language. Thus, there were many difficulties and I could not communicate with anyone for my first few weeks here.
After I received a visa, I visited the Job Centre and sought their assistance. I looked for jobs and submitted resumes but many of them require specific qualifications. The qualifications you earn in North Korea are either not recognised or are obsolete, and so I studied and obtained as many certified qualifications as I could.
Above all, I learned English for my children. I studied hard so that I could communicate with them. If I did not learn English, I would not be able to help them with their homework, and so I studied harder. I studied up to my GCSEs and now I am able to teach my children, the eldest of whom is about to enter college.
Apart from English language, what other skills do you hope to teach North Korean through your workshops?
Above all, I want empower member of the North Korean community by giving them the skills to express themselves and to eventually gain employment. Whilst the English classes will equip them with communication skills, I have designed the other projects to give participants the opportunity to combine these skills with practical tools. To gain employment, I want to help them apply for jobs effectively, pick up ICT skills and other technical know-how to put them in the best position to build successful lives in the UK. This will also help with the cultural differences - through language you can learn the customs of your new country.
Our mentoring programme will give opportunities to young North Koreans, fostering their talents and giving them opportunities to pursue their careers of choice. The first two Phoenix interns have already expressed the desire to pursue finance and journalism; I want to give them the chance to explore these interests.
The women’s rights workshops will act as a platform for North Korean women to build confidence and knowledge to empower themselves and advocate for other women. Speaking as a survivor of human trafficking, one of my missions is to give a voice to those who have experienced similar horrors. I want these workshops to act as a springboard for my fellow North Korean refugees.
Why are you running a workshop exclusively on the issues of Women’s rights?
The majority of people who escape from North Korea are women. Some say it can be as high as 80% of all defections being made by females. Many of these women, myself included, fall victim to human traffickers. I was sold into a forced marriage, but many others are sold into domestic servitude or sexual slavery.
Last year the organisation Good Friends published a report about the situation on the North Korean women in China, so it is a subject that is slowly gaining more attention.
However, speaking both as a woman and as a refugee in Europe, there isn’t much help available to help us heal. Mainly because of the small number of North Korean refugees in Europe, but also because of many women wanting to hide from their painful memories, or lack the language skills to talk about their experiences.
The UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea itself focused on gender issues, and I also believe that women’s rights are a critical indicator on where a country’s human rights stand.
By allowing North Korean women to speak openly in a closed-door environment, we can talk about the problems we have faced to heal some of the hurt. However, by also able to inviting speakers to talk about women’s rights, we can educate North Korean women about their rights and help them to become better advocates for our mothers, aunts, sisters and daughters who still suffer in China and North Korea.
Can you tell us more about the ‘Phoenix’ internship project? Why are you choosing to focus on young North Korean refugees?
While older defectors will of course play a large part in helping re-build North Korea in the short term, the rebuilding of North Korea will not happen in a day. I believe strongly that we need to support young North Koreans and provide them with the work experience and the skills to take the long-term lead in rebuilding the infrastructures of North Korea.
If you think about it, it is purely through their own resolve and entrepreneurial spirit that we North Koreans have managed to create a thriving alternative economy in North Korea since the 1980s. Just imagine what we can do with the right education, training and mentorship!
Speaking as a mother, I have great hopes for my children being successful in their lives, but refugees do face a struggle to achieve their potential. The Phoenix is a mythical bird who rises anew from the ashes of his old life. With the “Phoenix” internship programme, we want to help young North Koreans to rise from the ashes of their old life in North Korea, and equip them with skills and experiences to become future leaders, so that they can help North Korea itself to similarly rise anew from the ashes.
How do you plan to get other North Korean refugees to participate in these schemes?
For me, it is important that these projects are run by North Koreans for North Koreans - I understand the needs of North Korean refugees because they are the needs of me, my family and my friends. I hope that I can therefore offer North Korean refugees workshops that are aimed specifically for them and taught in their language.
We also hope to partner with sympathetic local organisations and companies - either for services or sponsorship - in order to ensure that these projects are tailored to the needs of the North Korean community in New Malden and that members of the New Malden community - be they a Korean or a Kingstonian - have a stake in it. Our projects will pilot in New Malden, but we hope to expand these to other European countries over time.
My fellow North Korean refugee Mr. Choi Joong-ha, said that he only came to the United Kingdom with “the skills [he] learnt in the army” and that he “did not have time to learn English”. By offering these courses at weekends and at flexible hours, I hope we will encourage many more North Koreans to attend our courses who may be put off by the formality of some other, more structured, classes.
What is it that you ultimately hope to achieve from the projects?
I am a North Korean refugee. I have escaped North Korea and made a new life for myself and my family in the United Kingdom. I have studied English and I have gained new qualifications. If I am able to do this for myself, there is no reason why other North Koreans cannot do the same.
By providing them with the skills and tools that they need to build new lives for themselves, I hope to help my fellow North Koreans make the most of every opportunity that life in the United Kingdom has to offer them.
Jihyun and the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea are currently fundraising to support these projects, visit their Indiegogo page for more information on how you can donate and be part of these incredible programmes that empower the exile community in the UK: www.eahrnk.org/donate