Darren Southcott discovers that North Korean refugees in the UK find life tough, particularly with looming spending cuts
Food shortages and societal collapse have brought record numbers of refugees fleeing the grip of the North Korean regime, yet for many the short crossing of the Tumen River into China brings more the life of the fugitive than the refugee. The years spent in hiding in China and the constant threat of deportation and imprisonment in the North Korean gulag make for a purgatory-like existence.
With over a quarter of a million people marching the streets of London on Saturday, the Refugee Council of the UK has stated that refugee community organisations around the country face closure, and further cuts to frontline services disproportionately impact refugees. Already amongst the most poverty-stricken in the UK, life could be about to get tougher for them.
Around 1,000 North Koreans currently live in the UK, having either arrived directly after leaving China or coming via South Korea. Even for those who receive refugee status there are few support systems available and the trauma of persecution increases their vulnerability.
The solace of UK refuge is tempered by lingering trauma, lost family and friends, and rebuilding a life from scratch, again. The UK’s dispersal system, whereby refugees are sent to outlying towns, often serves to isolate refugees and exacerbate community tensions, leaving them to suffer alone.
One South Korean pastor, Mr Kim, is dedicated to helping refugees from the North and selflessly serves as a social worker, friend and confidant. Spread out across a handful of northern towns, the pastor connects the individuals to the larger community in London and also brings needed supplies and news not available locally. Although an active man of the church, the pastor extends help to all of those in need, regardless of religious background.
“I have seen and heard the dangers they face first-hand and now they remain traumatised, fearful and untrusting of strangers. On top of this they are alone in the community, so I try to be a friendly face they can see at least once a week,” he said. “Back in North Korea they could not even trust their close family members because of the risk from security forces, so they are distrustful of authority and strangers. I try to build trust so I can help as much as I can.”
I travelled with the pastor on his weekly rounds up to the northern English towns where a handful of refugees live. Their deep distrust and trauma necessitates anonymity, due to fear of reprisals from North Korean agents, who are still feared to be monitoring the community.
Driving up from London we arrive amid rows of identical terraces, in which the refugees live invisibly but stoically, building a new life against the odds. ‘Mr Jeong,’ living on a red-brick terraced-housing estate in a northern suburban town, says the new environment has brought fresh challenges to his family. We settle down in his sitting room, surrounded by pictures of his children proudly posing in traditional Korean dress.
“We have been targeted by some of the kids in the local area, which has caused great stress. We are isolated and have no friends around here and my son has been bullied at school. Look, I’m even losing some hair through the stress!” he said.
The psychological pain is compounded by heart problems precipitated by torture, making a mobility chair to get upstairs indispensible. Despite being a talented carpenter and chef he has been unable to find work since arriving three years ago. The meal he lays out for us is testament to his skills – as are the hand-made chairs – and his guests are treated to a range of Korean delicacies and staples. I asked him if he eats like this every day.
“We lived through so much hardship while in North Korea and close family members died. These memories stay with us and we want to enjoy every meal to its fullest,” he said.
He hopes to open a restaurant when his condition improves and his son seems to be a very capable partner, showing that academic excellence is a trait shared either side of the DMZ-divide.
“He is top of his class in both English and Maths, despite only being here three years. I am very proud of him and all of my family. I do not want us to be a burden on anyone and once I am able to I want to work and provide for all of them,” he shared. “Once we are through this tough time I want to help others in need, just like Pastor Kim does now.”
This resilience and diligence is a quality shared in abundance by North Koreans, perhaps unsurprising given the horrors of their experiences. Waving our goodbyes, the Pastor took us on to the next town, again nestled amongst hills dotted with housing estates.
Mr Ko was living in a communal centre for refugees while awaiting the result of his claim for refugee status. Despite language and cultural barriers the refugees often spent time together at the library or in the sparsely furnished flat. It did not take long, however, before the realities of refugee life were brought home. Mr Ko explained that money had been withdrawn from his account unauthorised.
“I’m not sure why, but £10 is coming out every month. I tried to have it cancelled by the bank last week, but it is still coming out,” he said. “This is a large amount of money for me. I’m not sure if I clicked something online by accident, or not.”
Pastor Kim was sure that fraud was taking place and explained that this was not the first setback Mr Ko had experienced since leaving North Korea. “He has lost everything close to him and now he wants the opportunity to start his life afresh. The stress of everything has really taken its toll and I try to bring him food to keep him healthy. You can see by his condition that he rarely eats,” the Pastor said.
Coming from a relatively privileged background in North Korea, Mr Ko’s furrowed brow hints at the traumas that forced him to flee. Although nothing can compare to the persecution suffered at home, the transition to the UK had brought its own problems.
“At the moment I am just waiting for my appeal to go through. There is nothing I can do at the moment but wait, which makes me feel isolated. There are no other Koreans up here to support me, but I am thankful for the pastor’s trips to see me,” he said.
This feeling of isolation was becoming a common theme and as we drove off the pastor handed Mr Ko a bag of tortilla crisps, impelling ‘man-ee du-se-yo,’ a Korean plea to eat well. Set amongst the housing estates and boarded-up pubs of the town, the loneliness felt palpable and our thoughts were with him as we drove off.
The last of the pastor’s stops was in one of the larger northern English cities. Having felt its fair share of industrial decline, its recent resurgence had been knee-capped by the financial crisis and abandoned properties again marked the route into town. We turned down an eerily quiet row of terraces, before spotting some young children playing colourfully on the pavement.
“They’re here, they’re here,” the children shouted, as they ran into their house to fetch their mum and grandmother, Mrs Song. The children picked up their bicycles and took them inside, excitedly giggling at the arrival of their Pastor and friend.
It seemed a world away from the more subdued atmosphere at the other houses and as the Pastor began to lead the hymn-singing it was clear that despite their isolation they had found togetherness in each other and their religion. Immaculately dressed and behaved, the children were clearly a source of immense pride for the family.
“We have left behind so much misery that we are so happy to have been given this chance to start again,” Mrs S said. “The UK seemed like a mythical place to me before – it was completely unreal to us. Now I am here I am thankful for everything.”
Things were still tough for the family and psychological trauma was never far away, but hope for the future had alleviated some of that pain. The pastor also helped them with trips to London to see friends, which gave them connectedness to the wider community.
“We just want to make a happy life for our children now and try to move on with our lives. The people here have been so kind to us, especially the older generation, and we are grateful for that. Our boy is in nursery school now and we can really see a future for ourselves here. After what we came from it is hard to imagine where we are now,” she said.
From time to time the memories flood back and over coffee Mrs Song broke down, recalling her childhood and the nightmares that keep her awake at night. Her memories clearly shook her to the core, yet she remained strong.
“After what we have been through, we have no fear anymore; it is that which keeps us going,” she said.
It was at this point we had to leave and make our way back to London. The stories I heard will stay with me forever, yet the refugees cannot choose to pack up and leave them behind, as their past will follow them, wherever they go.
As the mobilisation against spending cuts gathers apace, as a society we must keep those deserving of support in mind. The moral test of a society is how it treats its weakest, and although we cannot all be a Pastor Kim, every little does help.