"I Escaped North Korea For New Malden"

By Londonist Last edited 16 months ago
"I Escaped North Korea For New Malden"

New Malden, south London is home to the largest community of North Koreans outside of the Korean peninsula. Mr Choi is originally from Chongjin, the North Hamgyok Province of North Korea — but defected to New Malden, and has since had help from Connect: North Korea (CNK), a team that teaches defectors to adapt and grow in the UK.

"The process of escaping from North Korea without knowing where we were going to end up, was a long, dark tunnel." - Mr Choi. Image: Connect: North Korea

It has been 20 years since I left my hometown in North Korea and 13 years since I settled in New Malden.

The process of escaping from North Korea without knowing where we were going to end up, was a long, dark tunnel, leaving everything to fate, and the journey was full of fears and horrors. No one would have thought that they would live in England.

I thought to myself: What kind of world is England? What other difficulties await?

I was worried but hopeful.

Mr Choi plays on the swings with his two daughters
© Roxy Rezvany

The first year in England was spent in Newcastle. I didn't go out much except to get a visa, various information necessary for life, groceries, or go to church on the weekend.

I didn't know where to start or where to go because I didn't know the area. I don't know if the language problem and the lack of understanding of the area made me hesitant. It seems like I can go anywhere now, but I was cautious with everything at that time.

© Roxy Rezvany

Living abroad was not an easy task for a foreigner. Language was the biggest barrier and a heavy burden. In the process of coming to the UK, I also used currency from many different countries. Consequently, I lost my sense of the value of money because of the constantly changing exchange rate between many different currencies.

Areas where refugees live generally have poor surroundings and I had to be vigilant enough to hold boundaries with the neighbours as I did not wish to be too close to them. Sometimes I had to go through dangerous things, and I was worried about continuing to raise my children in such a place, so I moved to New Malden.

© Roxy Rezvany

There was no place like New Malden to escape from the extreme loneliness and isolation. New Malden felt safe for us and the education system was also very good. I had managed to find a job here as I could not live on benefits for the rest of my life.

Many changes have occurred in the lives of the first generation of North Korean refugees. At first, most of the stories were about the past when we lived in North Korea, sharing food, and talking to each other about the painful past that filled us with tears. Those stories were not something to be proud of, but through the process, we developed a consensus and solidarity, such as identity, and relieved the longing for their hometown and their parents and siblings in the loneliness of living abroad.

The CNK door plaque and buzzer
Image: Connect: North Korea

Time has passed and now we are talking about the future and working hard to achieve our hopes and wishes. Many North Korean defectors have grown economically through diligent and sincere efforts, creating economic value by increasing our various businesses and earning income.

A woman and man teaching with a whiteboard
Image: Connect: North Korea

In New Malden, Connect: North Korea (CNK) has been by our side for the past few years to help North Korean defectors. I now work for a Korea Foods company near my house, and the children are also becoming adults.

© Roxy Rezvany

In order to keep up with the evolving social system, we desperately need an organisation like CNK by our side, and we earnestly hope that it will grow further and lead to hope for the future.

Still taken with permission from Roxy Rezvany's documentary, Little Pyongyang

Last Updated 03 October 2022

Continued below.