The Gryphon speaks to Joo-il Kim, a prominent member of the North Korean community in New Malden, about the challenges he has faced under the North Korean regime and as a refugee here in England and what is still to come.
“Refugee is a better term, the word defector just doesn’t account for what we have been through,” says Joo-il Kim softly. Kim is one of nearly seven hundred North Korean refugees living in New Malden. An innocuous London suburb, the only indication of there being a sizeable Korean population are their supermarkets and travel agents, nestled within the seemingly hum drum high street.
The level of support offered to refugees is what makes New Malden an attractive home for the North Korean diaspora. Most North Koreans living here have quietly blended into the community, understandably preferring to tackle the daily struggles of adjusting to a new society. Yet Joo-il Kim, who has lived here for nearly ten years, felt compelled to directly challenge the regime that saw his family starved and persecuted at the height of the famine in the 1990s. Kim has experienced unthinkable trauma after suffering tragedy both personally and professionally, he crossed the Tumen River to China. It took two years to cross Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand to eventually reach Britain. He has since set up ‘Free NK’, a publication based in New Malden, which aims to ‘liberate the North Korean people’ through its scholarship, revealing the many human rights abuses that occur.
We meet in the North Korean information centre, run by his South Korean friend, Bona Shin. The centre is a vital lifeline for North Koreans and is working hard to introduce them to an independent way of life and integrate and unite them with South Koreans. Before Japanese occupation of the North from 1910 until 1945, all Koreans were ‘developing together on the peninsula as a homogenous people, protecting the same language and culture for thousands of years’. But nowadays tensions between North and South Koreans are not uncommon, with the Database Centre for North Korean human rights attributing this division to ‘anti communist sentiments they were taught in South Korea’. With the formal division of the country in 1953, the cultures and languages of North and South developed independently of each other. And so, when North Koreans started arriving in Britain, South Korea, and Thailand, they were viewed by their Southern counterparts as suspicious and even troublesome. Despite this, the fervent hope that both sides hold for reunification is quite moving and something that Joo il Kim is keen to discuss.
A former North Korean army officer, Joo-il Kim’s role was prestigious. However, his living conditions were far from this and his role became centred on catching the many soldiers that fled from their dire surroundings, rather than training them. This was in the 1990s, a time of acute economic turmoil, when the country reluctantly relied on food and humanitarian support from the World Health Organisation. Movement within North Korea is limited but, due to the nature of his role, Kim had the rare chance of travelling across the provinces, causing him to see how widespread the crisis was. After a life of adulating his nation and leader, he found himself asking, “is this the best that the North Korean leader can do?”.
It is important to look beyond the myths widely propagated by the media; North Korea is so much more than a military state led by the crazed ‘fat boy Kim’. Films like ‘The Interview’ with its lazy racial stereotypes and the constant media scrum ridiculing Kim Jong-un diminish what a dangerous and grave situation North Korea is in – a danger that lies in Kim Jong-un’s refusal to denounce his toxic self-styled Communist ideology. In the last ten years especially, the West has obsessed over this apparently ‘hermitic’ nation and looked on incredulously at its insidious hold on its people. Yet New Malden symbolises the regime’s biggest fear: a loss of control.
The flaws of the British asylum system further hinder the settling of a North Korean refugee. With both North and South Korea claiming sovereignty over the whole peninsula, the British Government officially recognises them as South Korean. However this is only because many first escape to Seoul to access the information needed to decide how to continue. Indeed, among the array of injustices North Koreans face, they are the only nationality to have their fingerprints taken in South Korea, which Kim describes as “a breach of human rights”. As a result of this process, they then become tied to a South Korean nationality and are consequently deprived of the resources and support needed to settle into Britain. On this, Kim states “the UK should accept us as North Korean, we have no freedom of obtaining information and if we are moving through China we make an emergency decision to enter South Korea”. Owing to its brotherly bond with North Korea, the Chinese Government is renowned for repatriating North Korean defectors, knowingly sending them back to certain imprisonment in its labour camps. Therefore, “moving to South Korea is not a choice, the British Government thinks we choose to go to South Korea. If they make South Korea a first port of call, then North Koreans will have the information available to decide where to go, and better navigate the asylum system”.
Speaking to staff at the Korean information centre, it is clear that by helping North Koreans settle they are leading the way in community integration. By putting a stop to the misconceptions some of the South Korean community may have, the Centre is empowering North Koreans, encouraging them to thrive. Their current resettlement programme, and various events they have hosted, are all helping remedy the psychological and physical consequences that come with escaping. Whilst the term ‘defector’ is often used to refer to displaced North Koreans, this term implies that the decision to escape is light-hearted, and taken for political or passionate reasons. Yet the subsequent psychological breakdown they face, and, as reported by the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights, the reality that most female North Korean refugees will be sexually exploited, shows the decision is far from frivolous. Joo-il Kim agrees stating “refugee is the right term for us, defector just shows you have escaped. It doesn’t do justice to what we have been through”.
It is remarkable, but humbling, how Joo-il Kim is able to articulate the horrors he has faced. Like other prominent North Korean refugees, Kim is working tirelessly to bring awareness to the human rights abuses that his friends and family are suffering. In preparing for this interview what was striking was how eager the Korean community were to help with my research. Over sixty years after its formal division, their unquestionable hope for the future of the peninsula is quite moving. With increasing international scrutiny piling the pressure onto North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, it is their hope that the regime will soon be forced to acknowledge crimes it has committed.
Naomi de Souza
Thank you to Bona Shin for kindly hosting, and Yung Shin for translating. To find out more about the work of the Korean information centre please visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/koreaninformationcentre/?fref=ts
Images: Naomi de Souza