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Event report: the stories of our North Korean friends in New Malden

NK friends
Photo courtesy Korean Information Centre

During last year’s New Malden Festival, the founders of the Korean Information Centre, Bona Shin and Glenna Debosco, hosted an evening looking at the experiences of North Korean refugees in New Malden. The event was a valuable opportunity for local residents and others to raise their awareness of this small community in their midst, and the event was repeated this year.

There were two interesting changes from the event that took place last year. First, the Liaison Officer from the police force was dressed in civvies rather than uniform. This represented a change in Glenna DeBosco’s working practice that has been driven by her experience in the job: North Korean refugees understandably do not trust uniforms.

Secondly, and more importantly, instead of a representative from a foreign NGO going over familiar ground on North Korean human rights and the situation on the border, we had three North Korean refugees on the panel who were prepared to tell us some of their esperiences. This was welcome. Apart from the occasional newspaper article where a journalist gets to meet a refugee to tell their story, the general public has little opportunity to meet these people.

Apart from the high-profile Kim Joo-il, who seems to have no fear in speaking out against the regime, and who is trying to get his Free-NK newspaper distributed into North Korea, North Korean refugees in the UK – of whom around 600 are in New Malden – keep their heads down. The three refugees on the panel did not give their names, and members of the audience were asked not to take photographs. This is because family members back in North Korea are at risk from the authorities.

In a recent security breach, a refugee in the UK wanted to get a message to his family in North Korea. The plan was to record a voice message which would be sent by SMS text message using a Chinese mobile network which extends a couple of kilometres into Korean territory. The mobile phone with the text message fell into the hands of the authorities, and as a result the intended recipients were identified. We do not know what happened to those recipients, but what we do know is that the North Korean authorities put together a propaganda DVD in which defectors’ relatives still in North Korea appealed to them to come home.

Another related risk that the North Korean refugees face is that, once the DPRK authorities in the embassy discover the identity of a refugee in the UK and link them to family members back in DPRK, they are able to put pressure on the refugee to co-operate, so that family members are not punished. Such co-operation is likely to be in the form of acting as informer on fellow refugees in New Malden.

In such circumstances, it is understandable if individual refugees are unwilling to step forward onto a public stage. And the three refugees present did not disclose their names. Two of them were introduced as Mr Lee and Mr Kang, and let’s say the third was Mr Pak. Each had very different experiences which demonstrates that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Mr Lee was originally settled by the border service in Bolton before moving to New Malden. After many battles with the Home Office (they managed to lose his paperwork) he managed to get a UK passport and had recently visited his daughters in South Korea. The three of them had crossed into China together, but had then separated from each other to maximise the chance that at least one of them would evade the authorities.

Mr Pak had been settled near other North Koreans in a rough area of Newcastle where you had to stay indoors after 4pm to avoid marauding thugs. His housemates included drug dealers from Eastern Europe. Word of a Korean community in New Malden had reached Newcastle, and Mr Pak travelled to South-West London to investigate. On finding the conditions less dangerous than Newcastle, he reported back to his fellow North Koreans and they subsequently moved south too.

Mr Kang still has unofficial status in the UK, and will shortly be regularising his position by claiming asylum. He has survived for six years in this country without benefits.

We found out about some of their day-to-day problems – from how to sign up with a family doctor, via what to do when you get a speeding fine to the much more personal: how to deal with loneliness.

What was touching about the discussion was the fact that some of these stories were being told in public for the first time: not even Shin Bona knew in advance what anecdotes were going to spill out. And it was nice to see some laughter too: Mr Kang was almost persuaded to sing for us – he declined on the basis that the guitar was not tuned, but Bona promised to try to get him to sing at the Open Mike behind the Kingston Environment Centre, home of the Korean Information Centre, the following Saturday.

The evening was over too quickly, and it would have been nice to share dinner with them all. What was encouraging, though, was the number of people who wanted to talk to the panelists afterwards, to extend offers of friendship and assistance. This is precisely what this evening was designed to bring out, and it is to be hoped that another similar opportunity will be found soon.

The discussion event North Korean Friends and Their Stories took place on 17th September at the Malden Centre in Blagdon Road as part of the 2015 New Malden Arts Festival organised by Theatre 4 All.

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