The media spotlight is firmly on North Korea, with the secretive state’s dictator Kim Jong Un holding unprecedented meetings with both South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump. Looking on from the outside, are thousands of North Korean defectors. These are people who have risked their lives to escape North Korea, often leaving behind family members, to find a new home in a new country.
In the London suburb of New Malden, Joong-hwa Choi talks to a film crew about his life in the UK. He’s being interviewed for a new film Little Pyongyang, about the growing community of North Korean defectors, like him, in London.
Looking straight into the camera lens, he talks about his past life in North Korea, and the painful reasons he had to leave the secretive state behind.
Over 5,000 miles from North Korea, New Malden is home to the largest population of North Koreans outside of Korea. There are estimated to be 700 North Korean refugees living in the UK, and most of them are in this London suburb, alongside thousands of South Koreans. The South Korean embassy was originally located in New Malden, which some people believe to be the reason for the migration to the area.
In the UK, defectors might be far from the human rights abuses and the devastating famine that grips North Korea, but life here is not straightforward. Refugees arrive in the UK with no job, no support system, and limited knowledge of the world outside North Korea.
Adapting to UK life
“When I arrived in the UK, I had never heard or spoken English before. The first few days were a real struggle, because I could not communicate with anyone,” says Jihyun Park, who unlike most other North Korean defectors, lives in Manchester.
She continues: “In order to find a job and get a better life, I knew I needed to learn English, so I went to a local charity to ask them for support. They referred me to a local partner organisation – I began studying English with them every week.”
In addition to the language barrier, she says having North Korean qualifications also held her back, making it much more difficult to find a job and integrate into life in the UK. In North Korea, Jihyun was a teacher.
“I knew the only way forward was to focus hard on learning English and gaining as many qualifications as I could. Nowadays, I have many different qualifications and don’t have many problems with speaking English day-to-day.”
Jihyun now works as an outreach officer with Connect: North Korea, an organisation empowering North Korean refugees to integrate and share their stories.
Another defector, who chooses not to share her name, describes how after nine years in the UK, the language barrier is still very much in place. This person cannot read the news, write letters, or get involved fully in social situations. She walks past the local library with longing, wishing she could read some of the books lining the shelves.
“This communication problem has especially proved to be frustrating at parents’ evenings at my son’s nursery, as I am unable to answer the teacher’s questions or ask questions of my own, regarding my child’s wellbeing,” she tells the Connect: North Korea team.
She describes sitting in the hospital with her sick child, frustrated because she is unable to adequately describe his symptoms to the doctor. She can’t get the medication that she knows her son needs, because she can’t communicate.
“I hope to be a mother who is able to provide a better life for my child and family by improving my English. Not only this, but I also wish to better my English so I can take a more active role to help out with the hardships other refugees face,” she adds.
But this community is not alone, and the charity that Jihyun works with in London, Connect: North Korea, is working hard to create solutions to empower North Korean refugees in the UK. One of the charity’s goals is firmly centred around language learning, with free English classes taking place twice a week.
This week, Connect: North Korea has got a reason to celebrate. The charity has just smashed the £7,500 fundraising goal it needed to launch a North Korean community centre, following a successful Crowdfunder campaign. The centre will provide bespoke, targeted services to North Korean refugees, says Michael Glendinning, the charity’s director.
Once the centre is up and running, around 40 refugees will be able to take part in a group English language programme every week, and volunteers will be brought in to provide translation support. Alongside music therapy and psychotherapy support, there will also be a youth mentoring programme. Members of the community can also use the space for social, cultural, and educational activities.
For the North Koreans in New Malden facing daily challenges, the new community centre could offer the space to find some real solutions. But work like this takes time and dedication, and the charity is always on the lookout for more volunteers.
The need for a charity like Connect: North Korea, and the launch of the film Little Pyongyang, are both reminders that when refugees arrive in the UK, their journey is far from over.
Little Pyongyang is a film by Roxy Rezvany, which has been supported by the Lush Film Fund, Docsville and The Guardian. The film launched at the Lush Soho Studio on 21 June 2018, and is now available here.
Photo of Joong-hwa Choi courtesy of Beatriz Sastre/Roxy Rezvany.