Just around the corner from the Acton Town railway it seems as if there is some corner of an English field that is forever North Korean.Approximately one hundred books have been laid out on the pavement beside No. 73 Gunnersby Avenue, the North Korean embassy in the UK. Most are in Korean but they also include several acclaimed international titles such as Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick or Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Shin Dong-hyuk and Blaine Harden.
Some have harrowing images of malnourished children and barbed wire on their covers. All are at odds with the image North Korea is trying to convey to the outside world, one where harvests are bountiful and factories are places of roaring productivity. It is an image the diplomats in the 1920s detached house a few metres away, with its bay windows and pillared portico, doubtless do their best to propagate.
On 7 December, the North Korean Residents Society (NKRS) in Europe launched the first International North Korean Refugees’ Book Fair, an event that has been held in Seoul every year since 2007. The four-day event was formally launched in the library of New Malden in south west London, the UK’s de facto Korea Town. The NKRS invited Jong Su Ban, head of the Unification Book Fair Association to London. He commented that:
Our ultimate goal is to take these books containing stories of North Korean refugees to Pyongyang after unification, and hold our final book festival there in a grand fashion.
Three days after the launch, three police from the London Metropolitan are standing outside the gate as a few NKRS members hold up banners that read ‘Down with Kim Jong Un’ and ‘Take a Hike!’ A few carry drawings made by former prisoners of the North’s gulag system or photographs of the chubby faces of Kim Jong Un and his late father, Kim Jong Il. The NKRS was set up by Kim Joo Il (39) in May 2008, soon after his arrival in the United Kingdom, which is still the second most-popular destination for North Korean defectors after South Korea. The sun is shining and a winter breeze whips his hair about his head as he takes a microphone and delivers a speech in Korean:
“Since Kim Jong Un took power the human rights situation has not improved,” he says, adding that he is able to talk directly to people inside North Korea about once a month. He is dismissive of claims that famine conditions might again return to the countryside. This, he maintains, is another ploy by the regime to extract aid.
When the EU helps [the regime] they give the aid to the Army, who sell it in the markets.
At around 2 p.m. Kim and Jong Su Ban post an ‘open letter to Kim Jong Un’ through the embassy mailbox. No officials from the embassy come out. The venetian blinds do not part behind any of the windows. Oddly enough, even the blue, red and white DPRK flag does not hang from its pole.
When the DPRK purchased the property for an estimated $1.29 million in the early 2000s, it would have been hard to imagine a less likely outpost for a regime that incessantly congratulates itself for its glorious emancipation of the peasants and proletariat.
On the far side of a busy road there is a row of sumptuous mock Tudor mansions. Landrovers and BMWs are parked in the drive ways and there is an Indian restaurant and golf course nearby. It seems precisely the sort of ‘bourgeois’ setting that Kim Il Sung would have vilified in his speeches and essays. Then again, Acton is a district in the London borough of Ealing. Who knows, maybe Kim Jong Il, the avid film fan, was thinking of the nearby Ealing Studios, purveyors of classic post-war British cinema?
But New Malden, a town that straddles the boundaries of the boroughs of Merton and Kingston-upon-Thames, does not seem particularly Korean either. House prices ensure a largely professional and upper middle class population. Churches of several denominations are found just off the high street. Although Korean characters beam from the chromium fronts of a number of restaurants, shops and stores, the ethnic mix characteristic of other areas of London is less obvious here.
Even so, much of the capital’s approximately 20,000 Korean residents tend to gravitate to its suburbs. It is uncertain just how many North Korean are included in that number; out of an estimated 850 people applying for refugee status as North Koreans in Britain there are thought to be many Chinese of Korean ethnicity who were not actually born within the DPRK. It is from his small apartment in New Malden that Kim Joo Il operates. Born in Chongjin, he defected via China in 2005.
Two days before the demo at the DPRK Embassy, he chaired a session of the book fair at Haslemere Hall in Croydon. This included a screening of the 2008 movie Crossing directed by Kim Tae Gyun, a poignant depiction of a father and son’s attempt to escape from North Korea. Responding to audience questions afterwards, he opined that Kim Han-sol’s criticisms of his uncle’s rule in an October interview on Finnish television would have little impact: “I think he will probably be refused entry into North Korea forever.”
As for the future activities of the NKRS: “We need to speak to the North Koreans somehow, by giving some information about the outside world. What I’m trying to do is send a newspaper…obviously I don’t have enough money.”
Whether or not that comes to pass, they anticipate future protests at the Embassy. North Koreans of opposing allegiances are becoming more common in Acton these days.