TIMOTHY Cho only needs to look down for a reminder of where he came from – to the torture scars on his body.
Sounds of people having pain inflicted on them still echo through his mind and he admits he does not know how many of his family are still alive in North Korea.
Problems in Denton seem trivial compared to what he went through when he was a homeless member of the ‘hostile class’ living under Kim Jong-Un.
Having escaped the totalitarian regime once, Timothy was arrested in China and deported back to jail.
Having managed to get out again, he was picked up by authorities once more – this time the likely punishment was execution.
But mercifully, people started talking about him and his path to Tameside started.
Timothy, one of only about 670 North Koreans in the UK – the second largest amount after South Korea – and the only one in Tameside, recalled: “I was 17 years old when I left. I was a homeless boy as my parents left when I was nine.
“Because of the starvation that closing the borders caused, they escaped to China.
“When you’re homeless, you have to pick food up off the floor and sleep in containers, under bridges or on the street. Many on the street died.
“I was in the hostile class, who are discriminated against in terms of food, healthcare, jobs, everything. These are people whose parents are abroad or having relatives abroad – they’re called betrayers.
“I wasn’t able to join the army, which is compulsory. I was told the only place I could go was a coal mine.
“I was abandoned by the state. There was no way I could think ‘I should be here’ so I swam across the river into China. If you’re found by the military, they shoot you immediately.
“I was arrested and sent back, though, and I experienced prison but I was able to get out a second time.
“Even that was traumatic. I went to a foreign school in China but I was arrested again and detained in an international prison.
“I thought they’d send me back again. If that happened, I was expecting either public execution or prison. As I would’ve been regarded as a foreign spy, it would’ve been execution or a prison camp.
“But a miraculous thing happened. When I was arrested, kids saw I was taken out by Chinese police forcefully, so they took photos that went on social media.
“They were picked up by foreign media and they pressed on China’s Government, along with religious and human rights groups.
“And China decided to not send me back but to another country, the Phillippines.”
From the Philippines, Timothy secured his safe journey to travel via another country to a new life in the UK, he says, it’s been a persevering journey but survived.
But he picked up terms in study, although many come from the pub, and eventually came out with two degrees.
Timothy added: “North Koreans don’t have a passport – they don’t even know what a passport is. It’s kind of a prison society of 25 million and there are 300,000 political prisoners.
“You don’t have freedom of movement and you can only see things the Government tell you to watch.
“And people that may have died of Covid-19, they don’t even know as they haven’t the medical equipment to do testing, let alone medication for anyone who has it.
“Now I’ve now been living in Manchester for 13 years, except a year-and-a-half in London when I worked at the UK Parliament.
“I worked for Fiona Bruce MP, who’s now the Prime Minister’s envoy for freedom of religion and faith and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, who I currently work with.
“And one thing I can say about life in the UK is that I can do all the things that are impossible to do at home because it’s democratic.”
“I still look over my shoulder”
LIVING in the UK may mean freedom for Timothy but it also means looking over his shoulder to check the secretive regime.
But it is when he travels outside the country that he is really careful.
The 33-year-old’s work takes him around the world, most recently to the Faroe Islands, to discuss what he and others experienced as problems occur around the world.
And when he travels, his guard is raised as he said: “It’s definitely in my thinking.
“When I travel, particularly when I raise awareness of crimes against humanity, I still have to think of that.
“A few years ago, the leader assassinated his own half-brother at a Malaysian airport in daylight.
“I’m a British citizen, so I’m protected, but when I’m outside the UK, I always have to bear in mind that someone may do something when I go to a coffee shop, airport or walk on the street.
“North Korea is responsible for a lot of human rights abuses but there are many others also persecuting and torturing people.
“I speak of my experiences but it stands up to the situation happening in other areas. When I talk about how things are, I speak for all the voiceless people who can’t.
“What North Korea is most afraid of is people finding out the truth. They will do anything if they think we’re going to change people’s minds there.”
Helping out in my new home
TIMOTHY’S upbringing may have been thousands of miles away and his work may take him around Europe.
But he is still keen to make an impact in his adopted home of Denton.
He said: “I can go to church without being arrested. In North Korea I would be.
“I went to St Mary’s Church in Haughton Green and when I introduced myself, saying I escaped from North Korea, people were shocked.
“I helped with kids’ summer camps at the Haughton Green Centre and I’ve enrolled to help with the foodbank at St Mary’s.
“I also visit homeless people in Manchester city centre, speak to them, buy them a bacon barm or ask them what they want.
“I also saw a lady at Crown Point who was seeking help. I didn’t want to know her situation, I just wanted to know what she wanted. She replied ‘Some food’ so I bought her a couple of things.”