In the London suburb of New Malden, rows of modest terraced houses lead off the quiet main street with its McDonalds, post office, churches and convenience stores. But scattered among these touchstones of British suburban life are Asian restaurants and supermarkets, Korean property agents and taxi companies, all signposted in Korean characters. That’s because this small corner of south London is the home of the world’s largest North Korean refugee population outside South Korea.
Hundreds of refugees from the world’s most repressive regime arrived here over the past 12 years. They were drawn to Britain because of its distance from North Korea, and because it was not the U.S. or South Korea— countries they were taught to regard as evil. And they came specifically to New Malden because it has had a large Korean community ever since the conglomerate Samsung established its U.K. head offices here in 1980.
While there are over 650 documented North Korean refugees in the U.K., that number might be closer to a thousand, with defectors who fail to gain refugee status often going underground. They are people like Jihyun Park, who gained asylum in the U.K. after her second successful escape from North Korea. The first time she fled the North, Park was trafficked and married against her will to a Chinese farmer in 1998, bearing him a son. Six years later, Chinese authorities caught and deported her back to North Korea, where she was sent to a re-education camp.
She had more luck on her second escape three months later, but it was no less arduous. Park was discharged from the camp after developing tetanus in her leg. Sick, poor and unable to walk, she sought help from human traffickers to get her across the border. “I had no choice when I escaped the second time, I did not have any money, my health was a problem and my son was waiting for me in China,” said Park over a coffee at a South Korean-owned cafe in New Malden. After reuniting with her son, working as an illegal food-seller in China to eke out a living and an unsuccessful attempt to cross into Mongolia in 2005, Park met a South Korean pastor who helped them move to Britain in 2008. It was there, says Park, that she “found happiness for the first time.”
That happiness is evident in a church hall a five-minute walk from the cafe, as dozens of children tear around the room, burning off steam after a three-hour-long Korean language class. Nearly all are the offspring of first-generation North Korean migrants, who want to ensure that their well-integrated, English-speaking children are not losing their cultural identity.
The children are soon herded into pairs and led to the local community center, where the Korean Nationality Residents Association (KNRA), one of the two North Korean-run groups in the area, is hosting a party for its second anniversary. Over a plate of sweet potato noodles and the classic Korean marinated-beef dish known as bulgogi, Myungsoon Jang tells me about her new cleaning business. The diminutive and softly-spoken 48-year-old, who learned English by listening to BBC radio, points around the room to some of the other women who defected, like a former North Korean army officer standing by the buffet and a cellist who allegedly played for Kim Jong Il before his death in 2011.
Both Jang and Park have integrated successfully. Park, who is a project coordinator at the advocacy group European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK), speaks English and has received seven certificates in courses ranging from hospitality to human rights since arriving in the U.K. in 2008. “Last year I did an online course with Duke University on international human rights law because North Koreans don’t know anything about freedom” said Park. “There is only torture in my country and I want to help them [North Koreans] in the future.”
But the majority of North Korean refugees are understandably suspicious, a legacy of years of untold hardship inflicted by the Pyongyang regime. One 22-year-old defector, currently waiting on her asylum claim, was sold off as a child slave soon after escaping into China with her mother. Like her, many of the defectors I spoke to refused to give their names or left deliberate gaps in their stories, fearful of what they see as the long reach of the current dictator, Kim Jong Il’s son Kim Jong Un.
This fear—of recapture, of what could happen to their families still in North Korea—is pervasive, even if it’s unrealistic. “That is the biggest myth” says Eugene Nam, a 26-year-old law student who manages projects for People for Successful Corean Reunification (PSCORE), which was set up in 2006 by a North Korean defector. “It does make them paranoid especially if they have experienced a similar thing back in North Korea.”
Bona Shin, who runs the Korean Information Centre (KIC), a community center that provides resettlement programs and immigration advice for Koreans in the area from both the North and the South, sees it as a sort of siege mentality, causing many of the North Koreans to isolate themselves. They remain fearful of the British authorities and even the South Korean community, even though they are keen to help.
Their lack of language skills puts them at a disadvantage, unable to communicate to immigration officials or understand processes surrounding their asylum claims, says James Burt, who works on policy for EAHRNK. Funding cuts to language classes by the government paired with the Korean bubble of New Malden has given defectors little incentive to learn English and integrate with the non-Korean speaking communities of the area. Many survive on menial jobs as waiters, factory workers or grocery-story assistants in establishments owned by some of the five thousand South Koreans living in the suburb.
The adults may have escaped the worst in North Korea—and are far better off than any family or friends who remain back home—but they are still suffering. “In New Malden they don’t have problems getting food or getting by, however they are struggling inside” says Shin. Paranoia is one legacy of the refugees’ previous lives, but so are higher incidences of depression, domestic violence and alcoholism
“North Korea is very patriarchal—there is no human rights let alone women’s rights” says Shin, who provides counseling sessions to members of the North Korean community. “So when people get frustrated in totally different environments they tend to fight. Not only physically but mentally.”
As the children run around the tables at the anniversary event playing hide and seek, their parents can at least take solace in the fact this new generation will never know the stultifying oppression and deprivation of life in North Korea. Life in Britain may not be easy, but compared to Pyongyang, New Malden is paradise.