In a small, abandoned building located next to the Korea Foods store in New Malden, I climb the dirty staircase infused with the smell of pickled Korean salads coming from the canteen downstairs. I knock on a door with a sign saying “North Korea Residents Society” and a small man wearing a beige shirt, grey trousers and a smart brown corduroy jacket opens the door.
Kim Joo Il is softly spoken and has a gentle face which makes him look much younger than his 40 years, but there is a steeliness in his behavior that gives some indication as to how he managed to reach the rank of Captain in the Korea People’s Army before defecting across the border to China in 2005 and then arriving in the UK two years later.
He is now the head of an organisation called the North Korea Residents Society (NKRS), which aims to educate outsiders about the situation in North Korea, to disseminate information inside North Korea and to help North Korean refugees adapt to society.
New Malden is unique in the sense that it is home to three different Korean communities – Chinese Korean, South Korean and North Korean. There are roughly 20,000 Koreans in all which means that visiting New Malden actually feels more like stepping into New Seoul.
I have come to New Malden in search of the world’s second largest population of North Korean exiles following Seoul. And this personal odyssey to find a North Korean, to learn about their life in North Korea and adapting to the UK, is what has led me to Mr Kim, who serves as a spokesman for the community.
However, Mr Kim is not the man I really want to speak to. I am searching for a run-of-the-mill refugee rather than the head of an NGO who has already been interviewed by all the major papers. But all the people I meet in New Malden are from the South, and as I try to track down somebody from the North, the enormity of the task becomes clear.
I ask in a mini-market on the high street and feel a dash of hope when the cashier calls his North Korean friend, but he does not want to talk. I receive the same disappointment in Korea Foods, the giant Korean supermarket on the way to Raynes Park, and the sense of disappointment is all the greater because I know there are North Koreans here and I just want to share a few words, but I understand their unwillingness to talk.
The North Korean regime has a reputation for being one of the most brutal and secretive in the world, the refugees in New Malden must have taken huge risks and losses to escape, and the North Korean government has a presence in the UK. For all these reasons, I am sure they would rather drown me in Kimchi than share their personal stories of escape and exile.
What my misadventures do teach me is that if you ask for a North Korean in New Malden, you will inevitably be pointed in the direction of Mr Kim. I know this because believing I have ridden my luck and organised several meetings with several different North Koreans, I have in fact organised several different meetings but all with Mr Kim.
I am accompanied to the meeting by Yelin, my South Korean translator who doubles as a barista in The Place, a stylish coffee house on the high street. Yelin has just graduated from university in London and explains that education is the principal attraction for Koreans coming to the UK.
I ask Yelin what the relationship is like between North and South Koreans in New Malden. She tells me that the communities do not tend to mix. Despite the shared cultural heritage, North and South Koreans have been separated for too long and as a consequence they have a different mentality. She also suggests that the difficulties North Koreans faced back in their homeland, compared to the relative ease of life in South Korea, makes integration difficult.
There are roughly 600 North Korean refugees in the UK, about 400 of whom live in New Malden. Mr Kim explains how difficult it is for the new arrivals: “they have no information and then the language is different as well”, he says. “It is very hard for them to adapt to this country, most of them don’t even know that this organisation [the NKRS] exists.” Whereas South Korea is legally obliged to reintegrate North Koreans into society and train them in life skills, there is no such obligation in the UK.
Later in the afternoon and alone again, I walk down the high street and then left down the Burlington Road, where the Korean influence is still extremely visible. Hungry, I pop into Kimchi Village for some Korean fast food. Kimchi Village is authentically Korean and I quickly realize that I am the only non-Korean. All the others are workmen on a lunch-break, except for a young family to my left. Perhaps there is a North Korean here, I wonder, but it feels too inappropriate to ask.
Reflecting on my misfortune, I wander into yet another Korean mini-market and buy a peculiar drink with floating grapes. A small man in old jeans and a dark puffer jacket is stacking shelves. I approach and engage him in conversation.
“I am from North Korea”, he says. His body is almost child-like but his facial features are strong and weathered. He could be 18 or 35 – it is hard to tell (I later learn he is in fact 33). He seems relaxed and his face beams with a smile. I cannot believe my luck!
Jae S Lee arrived in the UK in 2006, having walked across the border from North Korea into China in search of food, money and a better life. In China, as is common for North Korean refugees seeking to travel further afield, he paid a broker to arrange his path to the UK. He now receives refugee benefits from the Commonwealth and works full time in the mini-market.
Mr Lee speaks little English so we chat through his South Korean colleague, who explains that Mr Lee was serving his 10-year military service in the army when he defected. But, despite his ordeal and although he enjoys living in the UK, I notice the sadness as he talks about family left in North Korea. He hopes to go back one day to see them.
But he is happy and unlike many other refugees who simply live off government benefits, Mr Lee likes the autonomy that working gives him.
“In North Korea if you work 7 hours or 10 hours you get paid the same, here you get paid more [if you work more]”, he says.
Following our conversation, Mr Lee unexpectedly offers me two slices of watermelon and we go outside for a cigarette, continuing to chat in a few words and gestures. He is quiet and reflective, watching some builders repair the road outside.
“Do you like football?” I ask, not really quite sure what else to say.
“Yes”, he says, smiling, before turning back towards the mundane mid-afternoon scene of a seemingly typical London suburb.
But New Malden has a far greater geopolitical significance than we Londoners may ever imagine. As Mr Kim told me earlier: “We have a goal, which is that we have a model to unite and integrate together in this area in New Malden because we can’t meet in Korea, but we can talk to each other and see each other in New Malden, so we can have a direction and understand how we can reunite even though there have been cultural differences for a long time.”
Walking back towards the station, past the semi-detached housing and non-descript office blocks so typical of London’s suburbs, it is hard to imagine New Malden playing such an important role in the future of the Korean peninsula, but I am comforted by the thought that if Mr Kim succeeds in his mission it will no doubt make it far easier for me to find a North Korean.
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