In the sleepy south-west London suburb of New Malden, the local Waitrose butts up against Seoul Plaza, a supermarket catering to the neighbourhood’s estimated 20,000 South Koreans.
The high street boasts every Korean business you could dream of: from the Kang Nam barbecue takeaway and Hanatour travel agent, to a fully-fledged hypermarket, with its own section for K-pop merchandise. (In BBC drama Killing Eve, Eve Polastri —played by Sandra Oh, who has Korean parents — quits MI6 to lie low making dim sum in the local Han karaoke restaurant.)
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But there is another notable community in this corner of the capital, one whose presence is undetectable from the shop fronts or grocery aisles – what is thought to be the world’s largest population of North Korean refugees outside Asia.
Having escaped one of the most repressive regimes in the world — a country it is illegal to leave without permission — some 700 North Koreans have sought sanctuary in “Little Pyongyang”.
Next month, they may mark a milestone in their assimilation. Ji-Hyun Park, who runs education programmes for defectors in New Malden, is standing to be a Conservative councillor in her home seat of Moorside in Bury, Manchester. If successful, she would be the first person from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to be elected as a politician in the UK.
“When I arrived, many people welcomed us and they gave to us a lot of opportunities and happiness,” the 52-year-old tells UnHerd. “I wanted to pay back to them. I also know that in the UK, there live many voiceless people and also many immigrant women, who have hard times in society. I want to listen to their voice and solve their problems.”
Why Tory? “My life was lived in a socialist dictatorship country,” explains Park, who had to escape twice. She first fled aged 29, by crossing the border into China, while under gunfire from North Korean guards. She was sold for marriage to a Chinese farmer but, after being reported to the police, was separated from her six-year-old son and deported back home.
There, Park worked barefoot in a labour camp, before being released to die after seriously injuring her leg. Within six months, however, she had escaped the country again and was reunited with her child. They arrived in the UK in 2008 as asylum seekers after a Korean-American pastor in Beijing put them in touch with the UN.
“What is really important to me is family, freedom and justice,” she says. “These values are Conservative values. That’s why I follow this party.”
New Malden’s transformation into an East Asian hub is thought to have originated with the location of the South Korean ambassador’s residence in the area. Seoul-based electronics firm Samsung also set up its UK HQ here in 1980.
North Koreans followed, seeking jobs in South Korean shops and eateries. But do not mistake a common language for a familial bond. “South Koreans and North Koreans cannot be friends,” says Yejin Lee, who escaped to the UK in 2008, aged 15.
“Somehow there is this wall between us. Although it was the same country [before being divided up into Soviet-backed North and US-backed South in 1948], what they think is totally different. South Koreans think like free-minded people.” She adds that the stereotype they have of her compatriots, even in Britain, is disparaging: brainwashed, uneducated and poor.
Lee, who was born in 1994 in Chongjin, North Korea’s third largest city, considered herself an orphan after her father died when she was eight and her mother fled to China when she was ten.
A couple of years later, her mum made contact to say she had paid a “broker” to smuggle Lee and her younger brother out. But, says Lee, in her first press interview: “He left my brother there because he wanted more money.” She has not been able to make contact with him since.
Lee spent 15 days in China, before moving to Myanmar and, a month later, South Korea. She had grown up being told that North Korea was the best in the world and that leader Kim Jong-il was akin to a god. At school, when she was not forever studying the central subject – the intricate history of founding father Kim Il-sung and his family – she was taught that South Koreans were starving because of the evil Americans. “And that’s what I imagined – a lot of beggars,” she says in her New Malden kitchen, laughing at the thought.
The scales fell from her eyes within moments of making it into Chinese territory. “When I was crossing, North Korea was completely in blackout, no lights at all. And then just after that river, everywhere was lit up, it was so colourful. I was like, ‘Wow! This is a new world.’ That’s when I realised, maybe not everybody in the world was living like me.” After five months in Seoul, Lee and her mother made their way to England.
Many North Koreans choose the UK over South Korea (where they are, in most cases, automatically eligible for citizenship and generous state support) because they do not want to be the victims of discrimination by their southern neighbours.
As one defector in New Malden told Jiyoung Song, senior lecturer in Korean studies at the University of Melbourne: “I couldn’t bear the second-class citizen treatment by South Koreans, but here in the UK, it’s OK because there are many second-class, third-class citizens like Indian, Pakistani Muslims or other black people. I’m just one of them.”
But that doesn’t always make life any easier. Here, they are destined to work in menial jobs for South Korean bosses. “I don’t even think they are angry,” says Lee. “They just accept it as it is because they have no choice.”
Korean expats from North and South are also divided by their accents and vocabulary. North Koreans, who grew up in a country impervious to foreign influences, cannot understand certain words that make up the “Konglish” spoken by those from the South.
Even their meals are different. “Generally, South Korean food is so sweet and has so much stuff in it, sometimes it’s hard to taste the original ingredients,” says Lee. North Koreans — not catered for by the manifold South Korean shops and restaurants of New Malden – are left to make their cuisine at home (a dish enjoyed by both nations, such as sundae, pig’s intestines stuffed with pig’s blood and rice, still tastes different in each).
Of course, this is paradise compared with home, where half of the population of 25 million is undernourished, according to a UN report. Just last week, dictator Kim Jong-un warned that the nation needed to embark on another “arduous march” against a faltering economy — appearing to draw parallels with the famine in the 1990s that killed up to three million of his countrymen.
It was the grim sight of starvation that led Joong-wha Choi — three of whose brothers had died of hunger — to flee across the Tumen River into China with his wife and baby son in 2004, before he settled in New Malden, where he works in the warehouse of Europe’s leading importer of South Korean food.
“I gave ten years of service to the country in the military and ended up seeing these dead bodies piled up in the street,” says Choi, now 56, via an interpreter. “I would rather be blind than see the dead bodies.” He chose Britain in part because of his memories of history lessons, in which the country — and its Industrial Revolution — were spoken of in glowing terms.
Lee, now a 26-year-old mother of two and working as a director for the charity Connect: North Korea, recalls: “Generally finding food was a problem for every family. Just getting rice wasn’t easy.”
Her family had a fridge and a TV, but most of the time there was no electricity — spelling disaster for her father’s income as an electrician. “The fridge, we would store shoes in it,” she says. “All sorts of different stuff, but not food.”
One rare exception is the Day of the Sun, which takes place today, the celebration of the birth of Kim Il-sung, founder and Eternal President of the republic. As well as the missile-laden parades — at which soldiers chant “We will die for you!” at their leader — it is the only day, apart from Kim Jong-il’s birthday, when the state hands out meat to families and sweets to children. “It’s a sad fact,” says Choi. “Because normal days for us are very hungry and we wouldn’t get enough food to eat.”
And yet many North Koreans in London are too intimidated to speak publicly, fearing the long arm of the DPRK authorities. Lee says she would not be prepared to have her photo taken for this interview, and that despite her fluent English and joy at living in a democracy: “I still find it difficult to say what I want to say, to express myself freely.”
Park, who was most shocked by the sight of newspapers when she arrived in Britain, says she is still surveilled: “We make a lot of events in the UK. Sometimes the embassy come and say you cannot do that, and send angry emails to us.”
Meanwhile Choi, a former chairman of the North Korean Residents’s Society, believes some of his fellow refugees have been recruited as informers under threat of their families being imprisoned back home.
He is unperturbed. He twice thanks me for interviewing him, and laments how there “once was a period where people simply didn’t have any interest in North Koreans”.
“The problem that spies are doing is they divide the community,” he says. “I am the only one I know who didn’t actually have any threats from them, so I am very lucky.”
However serious the threat, the truth is that many of the goings-on at the North Korean embassy — located on a street in Ealing, west London, once home to actor Sid James — often sound more like those of a Carry On film. In 2014, diplomats were reported to be so short of funds that staff were seen buying office equipment at car boot sales, and were unable to pay for their shopping at a New Malden supermarket.
But they should not be underestimated. In 2012, a North Korean was jailed in South Korea for trying to assassinate a fellow escapee with a poison-tipped needle. “Eliminating a defector is apparently the best way of warning its people against fleeing from the country,” said a South Korean official. After he was arrested, the agent said the regime had threatened to kill his family if he did not carry out the assassination.
North Korean diplomats are even forced to spy on each other. Thae Yong-ho, who was deputy ambassador to Britain, defected to the South in 2016. He spoke in February of the constant fear of being spirited to a prison camp: “From time to time some of your colleagues just disappear without explanation.”
And yet many North Koreans in London alter their accents and dress not to avoid undercover agents, but to appear to hail from their richer and more advanced neighbour.
“Even though they try, they cannot be because the way they speak and the way they behave – definitely North Koreans,” insists Lee.
“I actually go out to people and say that I am North Korean, proudly,” she adds, and she tells her children of the culture and history of her birthplace. “Not Kim’s family,” she clarifies, “but the country itself”.
“The landscape is beautiful, though all the trees are cut off because we don’t have electricity and to cook, you need a fire. Every season is distinctive. Spring is very warm and summer is very hot. We would go to the seaside and swim. And autumn is the most beautiful, yeah – all the trees, they have different colours.”
“I think we should be proud,” Lee says with a hopeful smile. “North Korea is going to open soon and it has a lot of potential. It could develop like South Korea. We could go back and do a lot of good things there.”
Choi, too, sees a time when he will be able to return. “But I also have this fear inside me. Getting out of that country is a life and death matter and I worry, would that be the same going back? There might be hatred for people who fled the country. I will definitely go back, even though it’s going to be hard.”
But the prospect of a homecoming still seems as remote as ever. If anything, North Korea has been pulling up the drawbridge, with the number of defections dwindling and the borders closed during the pandemic, as international sanctions continue to bite. Talk to defectors, however, and you will find a relentless optimism that one day soon the regime will fall.
In the meantime, at least they have found a little piece of Pyongyang in this pocket of London suburbia.
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