New Malden: Hundreds of North Korean defectors live in this London suburb
The southwest suburb of New Malden has emerged as the North Korea of the West. That’s because hundreds of North Korean defectors live there – more than anywhere outside of South Korea.
New Malden’s community of residents who escaped the isolated nation thousands of miles away was in the news again on Wednesday because of a report that Thae Yong-ho, the deputy to North Korea’s ambassador to Britain, defected with his family to South Korea.
Thae, the highest-ranking North Korean official to defect to the South, was “sick and tired“ of the regime of Kim Jong-un, South Korean government spokesman Jeong Joon-hee told reporters Wednesday.
Nearly 700 North Koreans live legally in the United Kingdom, along with several hundred who are here illegally, said Michael Glendinning, director of the UK-based European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, a charity that supports North Korean refugees.
Glendinning said most of the North Koreans in Britain live in New Malden, joining at least 20,000 South Koreans who live there. The popularity of the area with Koreans can be traced to the 1970s, when people followed the lead of the South Korean ambassador to Britain in moving to the area. The UK headquarters of the South Korean electronics firm Samsung also was in New Malden until 2005.
The UK government tries to disperse North Korean refugees to other parts of the country but most eventually make their way back to New Malden, Glendinning said. “Political reasons for defections are pretty rare,” he added. “More often, people leave North Korea because of a lack of food and for better economic opportunities elsewhere.”
He said many of those who end up in the UK are “double defectors” who may have first gone to South Korea before deciding to come here.
Those who come straight to the UK do so because of traditionally neutral relations with North Korea. Family members left behind are less likely to be persecuted by the North’s government than if they had defected to countries with tense relations with the totalitarian regime, such as South Korea, the United States and Japan.
New Malden’s main shopping street is dotted with Korean restaurants, a Korean supermarket and several other Korean shops, as well as the usual British chain stores. Many signs are in both English and Korean and a free Korean newspaper – The Hanin Herald – can be picked up from a display bin.
Sophie Kim, who works at a real estate company on the high street called Residential Seoul, told USA TODAY that all the staff there are South Korean.
She said the firm caters to everyone, but has a number of clients from both North and South Korea.
“Mostly [our Korean clients] have lived here for a long time. Some people are from the north of the UK,” she said. “Many people would like to live here or [nearby] Wimbledon. Most of them are families.”
One refugee living in the UK is Jihyun Park, 48, who lives in Manchester in northwestern England and works for Glendinning’s charity. Park has lived in the UK since 2008, after fleeing twice to China. After her first escape because of hunger and economic problems in 1998, she was reported to the Chinese authorities in 2004 and returned to North Korea. As many as three million North Koreans died of hunger in a famine in the 1990s.
Park escaped a second time because she had left her son behind in China and had grown disillusioned with the North’s oppression. “I lost all my family,“ she said in an interview. ”My father died. My brother left but I didn’t know what happened to him.“
After Park returned to China in 2007, she was introduced to a United Nations officer, who asked her where she wanted to go. “They asked me – America, South Korea and England,” she said.
“When I learned about America in North Korea, [we were told] it was an enemy country,“ she said. ”I never heard that in China. I wanted to go to South Korea but it’s a dangerous journey, so I chose Europe. It’s also a difficult journey, but better than the South Korea journey.”