Words and images: Hazel Tang

We have read the news. From the continuous testing and launching of new missiles, to the proclamation of nuclear weapon, and the initiation of a possible war with the United States. As far as headlines are concerned, the country never fails to create an impression that she threatens the survival of humanity.

We have heard their stories. From Nothing to Envy; a detailed narration of numerous defectors from the city of Chongjin, to Without you, there is no Us, which gazed into the capital’s lives from the eyes of a female undercover, and The Accusation, the latest addition which revealed secret stories presumed to be told by officials who had once worked for the government.

People have been, in one way or another, smuggling details out of the state like drugs, to piece together the public’s understanding like an ever-ending, unknown puzzle.

Yet life in the country remains a mystery to most people; not for nothing is it known as the Hermit Kingdom, a term used by Hillary Clinton in description of a place which”wilfully walls itself off the radar”.

This is North Korea, the World’s most authoritative yet mysterious regime.

According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) statistics published in year 2015, there are roughly 680 North Koreans living in the United Kingdom; the largest in Europe and probably, outside of South Korea. This figure could have been higher if those who were granted UK permanent residency or citizenship were included.

A considerable number of North Koreans are now living together with their South Korean counterparts in New Malden or ‘Little Korea’, a southwest London suburb somewhat 15 kilometres away from the city centre.

The presence of a large Korean community in New Malden is not something new as its history can be traced back to the 1950s when a conglomerate was agreed between a Korean businessman and a UK aerospace company called Racal Avionics.

The old South Korea ambassador’s residence along Lord Chancellor Walk and the European headquarters of Korean electronics firm – Samsung established in the area, had all added to this unexpected population boom.

However, if you have a chance to walk along the high street, you will find that New Malden does not feel as Korean as one might expect it to be; it is not at all like Chinatown or Brick Lane, where street signs are written in dual languages.

The New Malden High Street 2, Hazel Tang

Other than the two gigantic Korean words printed neatly on the William Hill signboard, a handful of Korean restaurants and supermarkets, and occasional Asian faces, New Malden seems no different as compared to other outskirts like Bexley or North Harrow.

At least that was the feeling I had when I first arrived.

The North Koreans in London had started their very own newspaper in year 2011 to condemn their former homeland. Known as FreeNK, the launch dates of both its digital and print versions were strategically selected to coincide with the regime’s Party Foundation Day (October 10) and the death of the founding president – Kim Il-Sung (July 8).

Sandwiched between a Korean bakery and a food company in the Wyvern industrial estate, a 15-minute walk from the New Malden train station, it is very easy to miss the main door leading up to this bilingual (i.e., Korean and English) publication located on the second floor.

I tried contacting the FreeNK editorial team several times via phone calls and emails but did not receive a reply. Likewise, it was 11am on a weekday and no one answered the door. If not for the yellow sign which said: “Free NK NGO, Free NK newspaper”, I might have walked away thinking that I was at the wrong place.I knew some of the editorial members also worked in the next door Korean food company, therefore, I decided to try my luck in the neighbourhood.

The first man I spoke to, turned out to be the supervisor of a nearby factory. Knowing that he is Chinese, I immediately switched to Mandarin, so as to sound less of a stranger. This tough-looking gentleman told me that he had met the FreeNK editorial team before and in fact, they were here earlier this morning.

The man added that there are many North Koreans working in the area so I will not have a hard time finding or speaking with them. However, when I tried to ask for his name so that I can find out more, he just walked off claiming that he has got work to finish.

Owner of the Highway Café just behind the industrial estate gave me a similar story. In her heavy Malaysian accent, she told me in Cantonese that she had been living
in New Malden for close to 30 years. She noticed an increased number of North Koreans at one point of time, but there are less of them now.

The lady boss gave me the name of this eatery which she claimed to be owned by her North Korean friend. However, she could not remember the phone number nor the address on the spot. She urged me to look it up on my own instead, stating that it would not be hard, but “Expon Japanese restaurant” really did not lead me anywhere thereafter.

Again, in spite of her helpfulness, she wished to stay out of an interview.

As I spent more time roaming around, trying to speak to people, I began to receive stares from a group of Korean ‘ajumma’ who worked at the Korean food company. I tried to approach them politely but they refused to speak a word after realising that I don’t know any Korean.

Nevertheless, the South Korean girl I met at the office-turned-staff-canteen right below the FreeNK newsroom, shed light on my strange morning encounters. Conversing in fluent English, she said that the North Koreans, especially the FreeNK editorial team, had been interviewed bymany media organisations. Hence, the people here are quite sick and tired of having to entertain more.

As it was close to lunchtime, she offered me some of the rice and seaweed soup available in the canteen, adding that North Koreans are just as friendly and hardworking as everyone else.

“They are normal people like you and me.”

But when I took out my notebook, in hope to ask her more questions, she said she needed to go back to work and just left.

This collective interview-rejection plus refusal to surrender their identities reminded me of a North Korean propaganda song – Nae ireum mutji maseyo or “Don’t ask my name”.

The lyrics of this song tells the story of a journalist who wished to write about the achievements of an ordinary girl but she declined the interview, claiming that her deed was insignificant compared to what the regime had done. The song ended with her praise about the party and offering her loyalty to the country.

Sadly, the reality of my experience was nothing like the song.

Because to the non-North Korean, not giving their names mean they could prevent themselves from having any connection with this group of people.

Their reticence was probably due to the public assassination of the Great Leader’s half-brother in Kuala Lumpur International airport, the fleeing of Thae Yong Ho, the highest rank official ever exiled since 1997, and the recent freezing of assets of a London based company which believed to have transfer money to finance a nuclear weapon program.

These negative connotations about North Korea had created a general fear and suspicion among the public.

Casey Lartigue, co-founder of the Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), said in a small public awareness talk that took place in New Malden Methodist church on April 5, that he was once a target. An individual whom Casey was helping then, was still sympathetic towards the regime, and hence he had planned to destroy Casey’s reputation.

Based in Seoul, South Korea, TNKR is a non-profit group which helps North Koreans to improve their English. In the same awareness talk, there were also representatives from the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK), a UK based organisation to raise awareness of the human right issues concerning North Koreans.

To these groups of people, who are constantly and actively providing assistance to the North Koreans, the unwillingness to have more contacts with the media is because they believe it is not the best way to help them.

Like the email reply I received from Michael Glendinning, the current director of EAHRNK,

“…Interviewing North Koreans can be difficult as they get many requests and very few articles genuinely help their community…”

Finally, to the North Koreans, revealing their identities publicly, can be a matter of life and death.

The maindoor to FreeNK Office, Hazel Tang

Casey mentioned in the talk that he had once met with a North Korean lady who wanted to commit suicide about four years ago after a reporter accidentally exposed her family members’ identities, resulting in their prosecutions back to North Korea, which ended in tortures and eventual executions.

Jihyun, the current project officer of EAHRNK, is no stranger to this. Having escaped North Korea twice, Jihyun used to hide herself as she was afraid of retribution, until today, she still has no idea where her mother and siblings had gone.

In our interview, which took place in Manchester a week after the awareness talk, Jihyun explained that language barriers had aggravated the problem between North Koreans and the outside world, as most of the time, North Koreans need the help of translators. This is especially the case when they arrived in the UK.

“When we were in school, we could not choose which foreign language we wished to learn… We were randomly assigned to either learning English or Russian… but all we learnt was propaganda.”

Often, even the South Korean translators have difficulties as they are not able to understand the North Korean accent. As a result of western influence, the Korean which South Koreans speak is infused with English or other foreign-inspired words while North Koreans still speak pure traditional Korean. As a result, there is no way a South Korean can properly interact with a North Korean, despite being ancestral brothers.

“In my opinion, even though North and South Korea shared the same language and nationality, we see ourselves as entirely different. The North is DPRK (i.e., Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) while the South is ROK (i.e., Republic of Korea); we are two countries.

“The North and the South had been divided for 70 years so we both have very different cultures and lives and South Koreans do not have an entire understanding of the situation in North Korea. In fact, we are still enemy countries, with South Koreans seeing us as spies.”

This is why human rights groups regard it as inappropriate for Western countries to refuse North Koreans refugee status in the UK and instead direct them to South Korea. Moreover, as explained by Jihyun, most North Koreans escaped without bringing sufficient documents or evidence with them to prove their status.

There had been incidences whereby Chinese nationals living along the border of North Korea and China, imposed themselves as North Koreans. Also, some North Koreans who had already received their South Korea citizenship continued to seek asylum elsewhere, and others had lived in China for too long that they almost lost their accent and forgot their lives in the regime.

Therefore, UK authorities became rather skeptical when it comes to immigration status investigations. Often North Koreans applying for asylum would be asked questions like: “How did you escape from North Korea?” or “How did you arrive at this country?”

These can be difficult for North Koreans to answer as they evoke unpleasant feelings or bad memories, especially female North Koreans who are more succumb to forced marriage and human trafficking. The story of their defection might be too shameful for them to discuss with strangers.

Outlook of the FreeNK Office, Hazel Tang

On top of this interrogation, refugees also face a 200-question test which most young North Koreans find it overwhelming as they have not received enough education on the country’s history to answer all of them. As a result of all these, many North Koreans chose to keep to themselves; fearing that openly seeking help would alert the governments (i.e., North Korea and UK) again.

What surprised Jihyun most is the disparity in terms of help given to North Koreans and other refugees. “Every time when we open the newspaper, we find news about refugees from other places but hardly anything is being mentioned about North Koreans… People are only interested in nuclear weapons, missiles, and politics. They don’t know anything about the human rights in North Korea… What people know is Pyongyang, not North Korea.”

According to UNHCR, a refugee is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence”. However, there is still an inadequate recognition of North Koreans as refugees internationally.

The main reason is all information about North Korea stayed sealed within the regime. With her citizens not knowing and believing that they are living in an authoritative state and if there is a need to fight for their own rights. Likewise, no one is able to export enough information and evidence out of the country to prove that people are truly being repressed or had suffered in a massive manner.

Nonetheless, Jihyun counted her blessings as she had received a lot better and more humane treatment in the UK.

“I told my children that I am a very proud mother because many North Korean women could not keep their children but I have all of them with me… Most importantly, UK has taught me how to love.”

Jihyun said she almost cried when she met up with two other North Koreans in Germany as they were housed in refugee homes. The local government would only provide them with a small amount of water and food each day and they were being barred from moving freely.

Because the staple diet of North Korean is rice, surviving on minimal bread and cucumber every day is like re-experiencing the widespread famine that took place in the 1990s North Korea all over.

“In North Korea, we have this food problem… when we escaped to China, we also have the same food shortage problem, when we arrived in European countries, we want to find freedom but still we cannot do so because life is no different from what we used to have.”

Hence, Jihyun believed it is encouraging and is a good thing to have more and more North Koreans stepping up to speak about the regime.

Because truth erases fear; like the way fear undermines trust as put forward by Lars Svendsen.

“Inside North Korea, there is always execution with people being sent to correction camp but others just don’t understand this because they have never seen the country… what people need is facts not rumours.”

Coupled with the Manchester rain, “Don’t ask my name” automatically played in my head again while I was on my way back to London. To be honest, the tune was so catchy that it does not sound brain-washing at all.

At that moment, I began to wonder, if the girl depicted in the song was truly humble or was she like everyone else I have encountered, bounded by reasons which prevented her from revealing her name to the journalist.