Jihyun Park: Growing up in North Korea, I could have never imagined standing in the UK local elections. Here’s what I learnt.

28 May

Jihyun Park 박지현  is a North Korean defector and Human Rights Activist. She recently stood as the Conservative candidate for Moorside Ward in Bury, Greater Manchester.

“I didn’t know which party to choose for the local election.”

“I hate Boris Johnson, so I would never vote for the Conservative Party.”

“Why do none of the candidates have a phone number? It’s very difficult for older people and people with disabilities like me to find information on the internet.”

These were just some of the comments I heard when I stood as a Conservative candidate for Moorside Ward in Bury, Manchester.

I began this journey 13 years after I arrived in the UK, having fled North Korea. Back then, Bury had a small number of refugees – and even today that number is still small.

When I started campaigning, my biggest fear was how people would react to me standing in the local elections. I have often worked alongside people in the human rights sector – and have never felt discrimination there. But I wondered if that would change on the doorstep.

I needn’t have worried at all. The people I met in Bury were warm and welcoming, and smiled at me brightly. They said that if anyone could change life for the locals, it was me.

I thought about my life in North Korea, where no one said my name in such a warm way.

People born in a free world may not think a lot about the power of a name, but they are very valuable to those of us who have been stateless.

North Koreans do not even own passports. They have citizenship cards, but they are not recognised anywhere in the world – and are more of a slave card than anything.

Even in China, there were no passports. When I escaped there, I was despised and stateless, and forced to repatriate back to North Korea.

When you feel that you are a human being with rights, you are finally able to feel happiness.

During these local elections, I discovered and thought about many interesting things in British politics.

I was surprised, for one, that a lot of people do not know when local elections are held, or who is in charge of their district – as more people participate in national rather than local elections.

Especially because of my time in North Korea, I feel it is incredibly important that the public exercises their right to vote. We as Conservatives should help engage people more on this.

In general, I found men talked more to me about national issues on the doorstep, and that women were more focused on local ones, such as care, education and communities.

Again, it would be interesting to understand all of these concerns – to make sure that everyone has a stake in our political debates.

I am very excited about the future of politics. One of my big interests – and the reason I love the UK – is our landscapes.

The first thing that surprised me when I arrived here (aside from the sight of newspapers and women smoking) was the greenery that unfolded before my eyes in the cold winter.

I was amazed to find that even in icy temperatures, landscapes were an ecstasy in themselves.

I have always loved seeing people out on weekends enjoying a walk with their dog, having a picnic and children running and playing outside. I have also had many lovely picnics with my own children.

I am keen that we should preserve England’s beautiful landscapes – although I understand that there is more need for new homes.

This is why I am backing the Community Land Trust programme, which will help to build carbon negative affordable social housing.

We need homes for the future – but we must also protect the environment for our children.

Although I didn’t win the election, it was a great experience.

As a candidate, I pledged that I would repay the British people for welcoming me, but I was lucky to receive another gift from the British.

They taught me politics and freedom. Thank you!