A glam North Korean defector turned reality TV star has told of her courageous escape from the totalitarian state – after being “held captive for dying her hair”.
Eunhee Park, 26, fled the world’s most repressive dictatorship in 2012 after she claims she was repeatedly detained by police for clothing choices such as wearing shorts in summer.
The then-22-year-old risked execution by travelling with people smugglers from her hometown of Wonsan to China, Laos, Thailand, and finally South Korea where she found fame on reality television in Seoul.
Now Eunhee has spoken out as boiling tensions in the region take the world stage, saying she fears the possibility of nuclear war after Kim Jong-un this week fired a ballistic missile over Japan.
Eunhee, who has racked up legions of fans for her brave escape, said: "I was arrested about 15 times for things like my clothes or for changing the colour of my hair to a lighter shade of brown.
“They held me in a police station and forced to stand on my feet for 12 hours at a time.
“One day I decided, ‘that’s enough, I can’t do it anymore, I have no human rights here’.
“I’m happy now because I have freedom and a proper education. I can wear clothes I want and I am not under anyone’s control.
“Trump is erratic, but so is Kim Jong-un. I do wonder what could the future holds. I don’t want war to happen, but of course it's a possibility.”
On Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull condemned North Korea’s “reckless” move and said the regime threatened the peace and stability of the region.
But despite pushing the region to the brink of nuclear war, Eunhee believes Kim Jong-un – considered to be one of the world’s worst human rights violators – is just boosting his military might.
She painted a harrowing picture of life under the regime, where women are thrown behind bars for the way they dress.
Eunhee said: “This is his strategy. The area is under threat now. Kin Jung trying to assert power and reap rewards from that.
“If other countries help North Korea financially, he will be spending it on missiles and weapons. He doesn’t care about the lives of his people.”
Eunhee, who lost both parents to cancer in her teenage years, was living with her grandparents when she began plotting to escape to a brighter future.
The 26-year-old joined more than 30,000 North Koreans who have defected since famine rocked the secretive isolated state in the 1990s.
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Eunhee paid a human trafficker – which she calls a “broker” – $AU8,800 to make the perilous journey to China by boat.
The rest was done by foot through the rugged mountains of Laos and Thailand.
She said: “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
“There was almost no food, we were being hunter by police. It was horrible, but I knew it was the price for freedom.”
Eunhee claims the threat of surveillance followed her to Seoul, where she suspects she was under the eye of Pyongyang spies while she began adjusting to life in the capitalist society.
The 26-year-old was taught English through the Teach North Korean Refugees program, which helps North Koreans integrate in the South.
She also relearned history after being taught falsehoods back home such as the South starting the Korean War.
Eunhee was also introduced to comforts like the internet and steak, which is not eaten under the regime because cows are used for farm labour.
She has now shot to stardom on South Korean reality TV shows featuring North Korean defectors in the hope of promoting reunification.
But the defector still laments the loss of her family. She left behind her grandmother and her grandfather passed away, after she left, which she admits still weighs heavily upon her.
She said: “The shows are good because they can start conversations and teach the South about life in the North. There are still many misconceptions.
“It’s three years since I last spoke to my grandmother. I paid a broker to speak with her on the phone.
“She said ‘don’t worry about me. If you’re happy, I’m happy. Enjoy you’re your life, enjoy your freedom.’
“I still dream about her all the time. I miss her so much.”