Building bridges between North and South in New Malden

NUAC Zoom meeting
Still from the NUAC video at the bottom of this post

We do not need reminding that the Korean peninsula is divided. But the implications of that division for Koreans in Britain are not so obvious.

I remember at a British Korean Society event ten years ago at which the North and South Korean Ambassadors were speaking, as audience and speakers mingled over drinks afterwards, one (South) Korean attendee mentioned that it was the first time that he had been able to talk to a North Korean.

In retrospect I’m wondering how many sleepless nights had been spent by the security team at the South Korean embassy in preparation for the event: talking to the “enemy” is not encouraged. Other people are better placed than me to advise on the overseas ramifications of the South Korean National Security Law. But to have an event where South Koreans could talk to Northerners without restriction must have presented the South Korean security team with a tricky problem.

I also remember that, when the North Korean embassy was hosting a public art exhibition a few years ago, I asked the North Korean cultural attaché and Deputy Head of Mission whether South Koreans would be welcome to attend: he responded, after a certain hesitation, that they would be welcome but please could they email in advance, because he was concerned that “hostile forces” may spoil the event. I asked the same question of the security attaché at the South Korean embassy, who responded that any South Koreans attending should report themselves to the South Korean embassy to ensure that they did not have a black mark against their name under the National Security Law.

I am reminded of all this because at yesterday’s talk sponsored by the LSE Students Union Korea Future Association, the speaker (the daughter of a South Korean diplomat who has grown up as a citizen of the world in Africa and France, and as a former employee of an American investment bank) said that when in 2015 she first met Jihyun Park – the noted Manchester-based North Korean refugee and human rights campaigner (and now candidate for the local council in Bury) – she reported herself to the South Korean embassy. Clearly, a ban was not placed on future meetings because the encounters between Eunjung Chai and Jihyun Park resulted in a book: Deux Coréennes, unfortunately only available in French thus far.

As explained in the notice of the LSE talk:

Deux CoréennesDeux Coréennes is the story of a North Korean refugee and a South Korean writer living in the United Kingdom. As the two women experience sisterhood and trust, they attempt to identify how their respective brainwashing has affected the way they see each other – and the world.

The unique voices of these two Korean women invite the reader to share in the emotions born of genuine dialogue. In writing this book, they share the memories of a devastating period in history and ensure it will not be forgotten. That one woman is from the North and the other from the South matters little: they share not only a language, but a legacy was well, and one they wish to hand down. Together.

Chai’s work with Jihyun Park ultimately led to her joining the UK branch of the National Unification Advisory Council. The NUAC is an organisation whose existence I’ve known about for a while, but I’ve never really known what they do other than arrange a unification-themed conference once a year in a London hotel which you might get to hear about a couple of days beforehand if you were lucky. Occasionally I’ve come across someone who is on the council, but their English has not been up to explaining what they do, or even to giving the official English title for their organisation. So it was refreshing yesterday to hear someone so supremely eloquent as Ms Chai talk about one specific project that the NUAC has been working on in New Malden: building bridges between the North Korean and South Korean communities.

The first tangible event was a New Year celebration held in New Malden in January 2020 at which 70 North Koreans and 70 Southerners came together to sing, dance, eat, play yutnori and generally do what people do at Lunar New Year. Edited highlights of the event can be seen in this video from the NUAC UK’s YouTube Channel:

Ms Chai gave us an entertaining anecdote at the LSE talk: recently the current South Korean ambassador to the UK was being challenged by a member of the ROK National Assembly as to what progress she was making in terms of building relations with North Koreans in the UK. She was able to share the above video as evidence of tangible steps. A video of the Assemblyman enjoying the footage of the event went viral. The Assemblyman in question was none other than Thae Yong-ho, the former cultural attaché and Deputy Head of Mission at the DPRK embassy in London mentioned earlier in this post. He defected a year or two after that art exhibition and is well in a position to understand something of the situation of North Korean exiles in the UK.

The New Year bridge-building event led to an equally interesting, and very moving, event later in the year: the Overseas North & South Koreans’ Peace Forum in the UK held on 21 November 2020. The event was held via Zoom and was organised by the NUAC, with congratulatory messages from many including the ROK’s ambassador to the UK. Edited highlights of the event are posted below, and you are strongly encouraged to watch the full 30 minutes.

In a discussion ably chaired by Ms Chai, a handful of North Korean exiles in Britain share their experiences with Koreans with a heritage from the South. In the past, North Korean residents in New Malden have been unwilling to speak out in public, in part so that they do not cause problems for their relatives back home. At an event I attended a few years ago, attendees were requested not to take photos, and the only official photograph of the event showed only the speakers’ backviews.

Jihyun Park has been one of the few escapees to speak out in public, persistently, and her resilience was recognised last year with an Amnesty International Brave Award. Her persistence has perhaps inspired others to come forward with their experiences, and the articulate testimonies (with English subtitles) from North Korean exiles featured in the above video deserve your attention. And what is refreshing is that the testimonies talk about their experiences in South Korea and London, not about their past in North Korea.

As I got towards the end of watching the above video, my heart momentarily sank at the remembrance of the National Security Law. A South Korean panelist expressed a wish to meet up with one of the North Koreans on a regular basis, maybe in the local supermarket or in the park, but was concerned that it would be breaching government regulations. How and why, I thought, can we tolerate the laws of a foreign state to prevent two people engaging in normal human contact? But the regulations in question sadly relate to the UK Coronavirus lockdown, not Korean national security.

Thanks to the LSESU KFA for giving Eunjung Chai the platform to talk about the work of the National Unification Advisory Council. Her talk was a fundraiser for the Korean Education Foundation. You can make a donation here.

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