Perhaps the most astonishing Conservative candidate in next week’s elections spent Wednesday afternoon campaigning in Moorside Ward in the town of Bury, eight miles north of Manchester.
Jihyun Park escaped twice from totalitarian tyranny in North Korea, and after many horrific adventures escaped from China too. Her harrowing experiences of life under communism have given her an ardent love of freedom, and a delight in even the most humdrum aspects of a democratic contest.
We met in Walmersley Road, the busy thoroughfare running north from the centre of Bury, and turned at once into a quiet side street of terraced, two-storey houses.
The first voter Park encountered was a vigorous old lady who was scraping the paint off her front windowsill so it can be repainted. Neither she nor anyone else mentioned the fierce exchanges between Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer which had taken place a couple of hours earlier at PMQs, and which were leading the news.
The old lady instead launched into a furious account of the appalling amounts of rubbish which get dumped in the road behind her house:
“I’m sick of reporting them to the council. It’s disgusting. It’s an absolute disgrace. The rubbish is piled up like a tip. I watched some of them throw 19 black bags out of the window.
“I’ve lived here since 1981. It weren’t half as dirty then as it is now.”
She voted Conservative at the general election of 2019, when James Daly won Bury North (which includes the whole of the town of Bury) for the Conservatives from Labour by 106 votes, making it the most marginal seat in the country.
Bury Council is still Labour-controlled, as is Moorside Ward. If Park and her fellow Tory candidate, Sohail Raja, are elected to represent Moorside, the old lady, who seems disposed to support them, will judge them according to whether or not they get the council to deal with the rubbish.
Some of the backstreets in this area of Moorside undoubtedly present vistas of derelict fridges, overflowing bins, soggy piles of rubbish, black plastic bags spewing their contents.
As Paul Goodman reported on ConHome yesterday, local issues, rather than accusations of sleaze levelled at the Prime Minister, are what matter to voters in the local elections. On the streets of Bury, Westminster felt like a distant irrelevance.
Park was there to listen to what voters had to say, and if they were out to put a short leaflet through the letter box. Some, on opening the door a crack and seeing who it was, said only three words: “No thank you.”
Each time she received this message, Park gave a smile of pleasure: she said it demonstrated that in this election, people have a choice: they can say “No” as well as “Yes”.
In North Korean elections, “No” was not an option, and she recalled that everyone had to demonstrate their respect for the regime, and their keenness to vote “Yes”: “On election days we started at four a.m., many people at three a.m.”
The authorities could see how you voted, and by 11 a.m. the regime had already garnered 98 per cent support.
Bury has a mixed population, and at some houses her fellow candidate Raja, who was born in Pakistani Kashmir, held animated conversations in Punjabi. He came to Bury almost 40 years ago, runs a taxi firm and seems to know half the town.
At one house, a smiling young man said in what sounded like rather good English that he could not speak English, and would rather converse in Arabic.
This was a language neither of the Conservative candidates could offer, but they established that he was from Libya, and had not yet registered to vote, so they advised him how to set about getting registered.
Park was born in 1968. The only picture in her parents’ house was of Kim Il-sung, who ruled North Korea from 1948-1994: “We always said thank you, thank you to him. We never said thank you to our parents.”
Her mother had been born in South Korea, which meant the whole family was regarded by the regime as hostile. Jihyan became a maths teacher:
“There was ideology in every subject. The first ten minutes of each lesson would be devoted to Kim Il-sung’s latest speech. In maths, there would be problems such as, ‘There were ten American soldiers. We killed eight. How many were left?'”
In the 1990s, North Korea suffered from famine:
“Three million people died of starvation. You saw dead bodies in the street. My father’s brother died of starvation in front of me. That was heartbreaking.”
Park gave up her job, for which she received neither salary nor food, to look after her father, who was also ill.
Her younger brother was in trouble because he could no longer pay loyalty money to the government, and was accused of desertion from the army.
One night at midnight there was a knock on the door: “Two commanders had come to search for my brother, and had found him. Everything was bloody. They continued beating him until dawn. We didn’t say anything.”
They took her brother away, but the train he was on stopped because there was no electricity, and he managed to run and hide.
Her father, who was by now extremely ill, told them both to leave North Korea, so in the middle of one February night they crossed a frozen river into China. When they were half way across, Korean soldiers shouted at them and fired.
On reaching China, they fell into the hands of human traffickers, who sold her to a Chinese man and sent her brother back to North Korea: “I still don’t know it he’s dead or alive.”
Her purchaser did not accept her into his family, but used her for sex and to labour in the fields. She became pregnant, was told to abort the child, instead gave birth to her son alone in her room after 12 hours of labour:
“Nobody looked after me. Finally an old lady who lived in the street came to me and helped me.
“Finally I have my son. I’m holding him, I’m very happy, but I’m missing all my family.”
She worked with her son in her sight, but when he was five her nightmare came true: a paid informer betrayed her to the Chinese authorities, who threw her into prison and then sent her back to North Korea, where she was beaten, tortured and put in a labour camp.
In the camp, she was confined with 40 other women in a small room with no toilet except a bucket, no windows, no possibility of washing, body lice, head lice, no period pads: “It was unspeakable. It was a 21st-century holocaust.”
She had no shoes, and after six months a wound on her foot became swollen and yellow, flies laid their eggs in it, her skin turned black and her hair, which was dark, turned yellow.
Park showed me the scar from the wound, running all the way down the upper side of her foot.
The guards at the camp told her, “You can’t die here,” and threw her out so she could die somewhere else.
“I was lucky,” she said, for many people did die in the camp. Once outside, she recovered enough to find a human trafficker who would take her back across the Chinese border.
She was reunited with her son, who had not been cared for:
“He looked like a street child. The family hated me and hated him. I thought maybe when I meet my son again that is a happy moment. But that is not happy. It’s really sad.”
She resolved to try to leave China, so went with her son to Beijing, hoping to get to the South Korean embassy, a very dangerous plan.
In Beijing, she met nine other North Korean refugees and they decided instead to try to leave through Mongolia. They had to get through a two-metre fence, in which they cut a hole. The Chinese police chased them. She was walking with her son.
A North Korean man called Kwang came back to help her, and carried her son. They ran into the desert and escaped. She fell in love with the man who had helped her: “The first person I loved.”
For three days they wandered in the Gobi desert, but could find nothing to eat or drink. Her son lay down to die. To get water, they took him back across the border into China, where they made their way back to Beijing.
Here the three of them lived for two years, Kwang making pots which she sold in the market. In 2007, they met a Korean pastor who told them the United Nations could get them out of China.
In 2008 they arrived in Liverpool as asylum seekers, were quickly given the right to remain in the UK for five years, and were sent to Bury, where they at first stayed in a hostel, receiving each day an English breakfast, but no lunch or dinner, after which they were given a council house.
The latter stages of this interview were conducted as we drank tea in a tent which Kwang has erected in the back garden of the council house.
The front garden is given over to the growing of Korean vegetables, just now starting to grow into proper plants in beautifully tended beds.
Beside the house, Kwang has erected a flagpole, from which flies the Union Jack, while a pole jutting from the building carries St George’s flag.
Ji, as she is generally known, has become a human rights campaigner, determined “as a survivor and a witness” to tell people what is happening in North Korea.
In 2016 she joined the Conservative Party, because it believes in “the ideals of justice, freedom and the family”:
“Many people asked me, ‘Why are you joining the Conservative Party? They discriminate against refugees.’
“I told them, ‘That is not true. Think who you are, why you left your country, and why you came to the UK.
“‘This is a democratic country – this country gave you freedom.
“‘When we came here, many people didn’t know who we were, and thought we were Chinese.
“‘Then we learned English and said we were Korean.
“‘We became friends. Nobody discriminated against us. People know that’s our background and they always welcomed us, opened their hearts to us.'”
Some people, on deciding to stand for election, wonder how to make their personal history more interesting. Park’s history is too interesting, too full of pain, though she is now “very happy with life”.
Her oldest son is studying in London, and she has had two more children with Kwang.
She one of the first two North Koreans to contest an election in the UK: the other is Timothy Cho, who is contesting the ward of Denton South in Tameside.
Park declined to estimate her chances of success, but the mere fact that she is standing is surely a vindication of conservatism.
Bury will forever be remembered as the birthplace of Sir Robert Peel, who in the 1830s created the modern Conservative Party, and in 1846 almost destroyed it by abolishing the Corn Laws.
A handsome statue of Peel stands in the Market Place, bearing on its plinth his famous words uttered by him at the end of his last ministerial speech in the Commons:
“It may be, I shall leave a name remembered with expressions of good will in the abode of those, whose lot it is to labour, and to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because it is no longer leavened by a sense of injustice.”
Other monuments in the middle of town commemorate the heroism of the XXth Lancashire Fusiliers, and “the name and fame of John Kay of Bury”,
“whose invention in the year 1733 of the fly shuttle quadrupled human power in weaving & placed England in the front rank as the best market in the world for textile manufactures. He was born in Bury in 1704, and died in exile and poverty in France, where he lies in an unknown grave.”
Park’s father lies too in an unknown grave, but she herself has become an adornment of our democracy.