Inside the office of the Free NK newspaper. Photos by Thomas Hjelm
There’s been plenty written about North Koreans fleeing the homeland: just how close to starving they’d been before they left, and how many countries they had to cross before they were safe, jailbreaking from a state that never lacks creativity when it comes to punishments for those who’ve displeased the Supreme Leader. However, it’s harder to find information on how those defectors settle in once they’ve found their new homes—especially those who end up in the UK.
To find out firsthand what it’s like to adjust from a life under a dictatorship to the freedom, non-regimented haircuts, and wide range of internet service providers available in the UK, I went to New Malden—a suburb of southwest London—to meet Joo-il Kim, a North Korean defector and editor of the Free NK newspaper.
New Malden’s most notable feature is its 20,000-strong Korean population, with North Korean defectors making up more than 600 of that number. This makes New Malden the most popular location in Europe for the North Korean diaspora, and one of the world’s largest communities of North Koreans outside of the DPRK itself. Unsurprisingly, the majority of businesses in the area are geared toward its Korean residents; along with a high street full of Korean restaurants, I’ve been told there are also three karaoke brothel bars nearby, giving their customers a taste of Seoul’s red-light districts 5,000 miles from home.
Outside the Free NK office
The Free NK office sits between two large warehouses—one for the Seoul Bakery, the other for the Korea Foods Company—in an area called the Wyvern Industrial Estate. It was here that Joo-il Kim introduced me to Joong Wha Choi, another North Korean defector and the current president of the North Korean Residents Society, an organization aimed at helping refugees settle into their new lives in the UK.
Joong Wha, 48, works at the newspaper when he isn’t at his day job at Korea Foods, a stark difference from his former life as a soldier and government business consultant in North Korea. He arrived in the UK more than six years ago, settling in Newcastle before hearing about the Little Pyongyang nestled just outside London. At the time, he was struggling to learn English and, subsequently, finding it hard to secure proper work. If New Malden really was populated by as many Koreans as he’d heard, he thought, he could surely find a better support network there.
“I did think that, by living in New Malden, it would take me longer to integrate into wider British society, as I’d just be surrounded by Koreans,” Joong Wha told me. “But I needed to solve my immediate problems.”
A Korean butcher in New Malden
What Joong Wha found when he arrived in New Malden was something familiar to many defectors: a language barrier between those from the North and South, which can often make it difficult for the expatriate northerners and southerners to understand one another.
“In North Korea we used a lot of foreign words from Russia, Japan, and China,” he said. “But there was a [regime] movement called the ‘Making Our Own Language Alive’ movement. Through that we got rid of all the foreign-influenced words. All the words [North Koreans] use now are ‘pure Korean,’ so my generation learned these pure words. Therefore, when I converse with South Koreans and they use these words influenced by English, I sometimes don’t understand what they mean.”
Joo-il raised an additional issue for North Koreans planning to find work in the UK. When you come to a country with a totally different economic state of affairs, whether you speak the language or not, you need to ensure, as a North Korean, that you aren’t taken advantage of. North Koreans may offer their labor too easily, he said, and find themselves in the same position of poverty they were hoping to escape.
The majority of defectors from North Korea are women, which often comes as a surprise—perhaps because many assume only men could survive the grueling journey across the border. For more than a decade it’s been reported that the fate of many North Korean women who escape to China is one of sexual slavery and exploitation, forced to work as prostitutes in order to survive. As recently as June there was a report by Radio Free Asia that explained how, fearing repatriation, these women operate as prostitutes under handlers, only to end up facing deportation anyway when Chinese authorities discover their extra-legal work.
Joo-il leafing through Free NK
Stories like this increased Joo-il and Joong Wha’s certainty that the UK was the place to resettle when they defected. “The UK is a great place, not only because it is hailed as a nation respectful of human rights,” Joong Wha eagerly explained, "but because of the Industrial Revolution.”
Turns out this famous period of British history isn't just a fixture in GCSE history class; it also apparently features heavily in textbooks in North Korea, where the age is hailed as exemplary of the sort of economic success that its own society should strive for. This was slightly odd to hear at first, but it's at least comforting to know that thousands of North Korean school children will mourn the loss of UK industry when its government eventually declares nuclear obliteration of the West.
“It’s seen as a very positive, very good country,” said Joong Wha. “I thought of it as a good society.”
I asked Joong Wha and Joo-il if they thought the recent curbs on immigration into Britain had dissuaded any defectors from heading to the UK, or whether any defectors they knew had experienced trouble seeking asylum here.
“Yes, there have been some cases where people have experienced some trouble, where a North Korean defector is mistaken for a Korean-Chinese or a North Korean defector who has already been to South Korea," answered Joo-il. "The UK government may be clamping down on immigration, but as far as I know this doesn't affect political asylum seekers or refugees. Even if they were affected, it wouldn't affect the good impression North Koreans have of the UK. They will only feel disappointment.”
The difficulties Joo-il was referring to have been addressed by the British government before. Though, rather than deeming them "mistakes," the government claimed it had found defectors seeking asylum in the UK who had already received South Korean citizenship, which voids their refugee status. Furthermore, South Korea immediately recognizes North Korean defectors as their own citizens, so even if they're not intending to settle in South Korea, it's difficult for them to claim refuge elsewhere, as they're treated instead as ordinary migrants.
In 2008, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) announced that it was forcibly deporting any North Korean defectors claiming to have arrived directly from the DPRK who'd already been granted asylum in South. The move was a reaction to the increase of asylum applications from apparent North Korean defectors to the UK, with the UKBA frustrated at having to differentiate legitimate applications from the large amount of fraudulent ones coming from Chinese immigrants who were attempting to pose as North Korean defectors.
A North/South Korean language cheat sheet
Joong Wha reminded me that, on leaving North Korea, where you end up doesn’t really seem like a choice. South Korea is one of the three official enemies of the North Korean government, and although this is where many defectors go, settling here would ensure that any family members back home would receive “the strictest of punishments.”
“Growing up in North Korea, you are told South Koreans only care about money, and you are worried about discrimination on the basis of wealth. To live in a society where money is considered the top priority, it would actually be very painful to us, considering our past,” said Joong Wha. “Their own country was cut in half, and they’re not interested!”
I first met Joo-il when I attended a talk that discussed how to better integrate North Koreans into the New Malden community. A local South Korean woman raised the point that she had found it hard to overcome the prejudice instilled in her from a young age toward North Koreans. Su-Min Hwang, our translator for the day, seconded that problem. She lives in New Malden now, but grew up in South Korea, where she was never taught much about why the North and South had split, or their differences in ideologies. In fact, all she really remembers hearing are utterances from her parents about the “red devils” of the North.
The North Korean Residents Society has been running for six years to help refugees overcome problems like this and settle into life outside of the DPRK.
The society also helps to inform people of the human rights offenses taking place in North Korea, leading a demonstration in front of the North Korean embassy four years ago after the UK organized an event to celebrate UK-DPRK relations. Understandably, this championing of relations with a totalitarian state was something that baffled Joo-il and his contemporaries.
“I do not see the embassy as much of a threat,” said Joo-il. “Plus, they don’t have a very big budget.” (A budget that'll presumably be eroded even further when they get around to paying the $400,000 worth of unpaid parking tickets they now owe.)
A page in the Free NK newspaper
With a break in conversation, the two men gestured that they were going outside to get some air, so I took the opportunity to leaf through the newspapers spread around the office.
The Free NK newspaper was established to bring news from the rest of the world to North Korean citizens, as well as raising awareness of what really goes on in North Korea to the international community. This might explain why, flicking through the pages, the content morphs from reports on UN Security Council meetings into stories about porn stars rallying for better labor laws.
When Joo-il returned to the room, he told me with a smile that the date they began publishing the paper online, in 2011, was strategically chosen as October 10, the Party Foundation Day in North Korea. July 8—the day the newspaper began publication in print, in 2013—was the date that Kim Il-sung died.
“We see this as the first stage, where we distribute the newspaper to the international community—mainly to the European communities—in order to raise awareness of what really goes on in North Korea,” said Joo-il. “Some articles are provided by correspondents in North Korea, and some are provided by other news companies that we have contracts with.”
Stacks of old Free NK newspapers
Joong Wha, who was back in the room by this point, remarked that he didn’t always feel the same level of duty or purpose as he and Joo-il do now.
“When I went to China, it was painful,” he said. “On first defecting, you’re hurt by the fact that a country you gave your life to—a country I trusted—actually deceived me and failed to protect its own people. My initial reaction was to swear to myself to never be deceived again, and I wanted to give up any sort of principles, ideologies, and any goals. I just wanted to protect myself and my brothers and sisters; I didn’t think about doing anything for the greater good or for other people.”
Joong Wha would send money he earned in China back to family in North Korea through a network of brokers happy to undertake the illegal transfers for a hefty commission. However, he soon realized that all the money in the world wouldn’t change life for his relatives; the government in North Korea had to change for anything to become truly different.
“I came to the UK and I met Joo-il, and that changed a lot of my thinking,” he said.
I asked if many North Korean defectors feel a duty to bring about change in their home country.
“I sometimes say to myself that it would be great if there was somebody else who risked their life to escape and could be the one to get things done.” He paused, and then continued, looking weary. “In the past, we’ve had systems run by kings and queens, and even then these monarchies would give some acknowledgement to the welfare of their people. But not the North Korean government—all they want to protect is their own power. I live a comfortable life now here in the UK, but this is a society that somebody else has worked hard for, and I have come to enjoy somebody else’s sacrifice.”
For Joo-il, the eventual goal is reunification of the North and South, and he sees the current community in New Malden as a good model for this—a place where North, South, and Chinese-Koreans all live together without incident.
“It is my duty to change things for future generations in North Korea.”
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