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COVID-19 Upends North Korean Defectors in Britain

Connect North Korea holds a meeting with defectors. Jihyun Park, center, and Michael Glendinning, right. (Connect North Korea)
Connect North Korea holds a meeting with defectors. Jihyun Park, center, and Michael Glendinning, right. (Connect North Korea)

Jihyun Park, a North Korean defector in London, had heard stories that other defectors in Britain were having a tough time making ends meet as the coronavirus disrupted daily life.

She responded by packing up dozens of boxes with rice and spicy beef flavor Korean-style instant noodles bought with her own money and sending them to ease the lives of North Korean families just barely getting by.

“This lockdown period is comparable to wartime,” said Park, a human rights activist who was born in North Korea's east coast port city of Chongjin and arrived in Britain in 2008. “Many North Korean defectors lost their jobs and are staying at home. The lockdown was enforced suddenly and some people couldn’t stock up on food, so I wanted to provide what little help I can.”

Park, a math teacher before defecting in 1998, is the outreach director at Connect: North Korea, an organization that helps North Koreans who have fled a repressive regime settle in Britain. Separate from Park’s private efforts, Connect: North Korea is also providing noodles and rice, some $5,000 worth, to 35 defector families.

The elderly, single parents and those without visas in the North Korean community are beneficiaries.

Kumok Kim, 74, who lives with her granddaughter in Manchester, is among the recipients of the group’s aid.

In 1998, Kim crossed the Yalu River, going from North Korea into China on a quest to find her two daughters who had been sold as brides to Chinese men.

Daughters found, then lost

After three months of sleeping outdoors, Kim, who was a housewife in North Korea, said she found her daughters living in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in eastern Jilin province, China’s largest Korean community. While hiding in Yanji city, Kim’s two adult daughters were arrested as the family attended church. Repatriated to North Korea, Kim said she never heard from them again.

Kim worked as a live-in maid for a Chinese family for four years, saving money so she could purchase tickets to London for herself and her granddaughter.

“Their house was on the fifth floor and I didn't step on the ground level the entire time,” Kim said. “I had the option to go to South Korea but that's a detour through Southeast Asia and a much more difficult journey for myself and my granddaughter," said Kim, who arrived in Britain in 2011 and received asylum with her granddaughter in 2017.

Kim said that while’s she’s grateful for the help she’s received from Connect: North Korea, she’s worried about the North Korean defectors waiting for decisions on their asylum claims.

“In my church, there are defector families waiting for visas and have three or four children,” Kim said, explaining that while waiting, the adults receive weekly government subsidies but cannot augment them by working. Kim asked that her church not be identified to protect congregants’ privacy.

“Before the lockdown, the adults only ate one meal a day in the evening to save money. Now the children are home all the time, and [the family must] spend more on eating,” Kim said.

Suburban refuge

The southwest London suburb of New Malden is home to the largest North Korean community outside Asia. About 1,000 North Koreans have resettled here since the late 2000s, drawn by job opportunities in the businesses established by South Koreans who formed a large community in New Malden in the 1960s. The community expanded when Samsung Electronics established its U.K. head office in New Malden in 1980.

The majority of North Korean defectors in Britain work as cleaners, movers or taxi drivers, or work gig jobs at restaurants and construction sites. Many of those who are jobless because of the economic impact of COVID-19 do not qualify to receive unemployment benefits.

Only about 10% of the North Koreans are employed by large businesses like Korean supermarkets, said Seung Cheol Choi, former president of the Korean Nationality Residents Association, a North Korean defectors group in Britain.

“Others don’t have regular jobs, so they can’t receive the government’s coronavirus subsidies. They must be having a hard time compared to before the coronavirus. Nonetheless, I believe the British social security system provides for basic necessities,” he said.

Michael Glendinning, founder of Connect: North Korea, thinks being jobless is difficult for the North Korean workers.

“Even the most basic needs are not being met — food, housing or whatever — and that’s one of the reasons why we started the fundraising: to be able to provide support,” he said.

The UK connection

There were only 20 North Korean defectors living in Britain in 2007, but ever since, the number has grown exponentially. Some came straight from China, a transit point for almost all North Korean defectors. Others moved to Britain after brief stays in South Korea, which received the first defector in 1948. As of December 2019, 33,523 North Korean defectors had entered South Korea.

In Britain, “North Koreans and South Koreans are all immigrants and we’re equals, but in South Korea, we can never be equals,” said Choi, who felt the South Koreans “were clannish. … They’re the natives and we’re the latecomers.”

Choi, who graduated from medical school in North Korea before fleeing in 2002, ran a trade consultancy in South Korea before resettling in Britain in 2008.

Now working as a real estate agent, Choi said that Britain’s social welfare system and the widespread use of English, the universal language of business, appeal to North Korean defectors.

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a North Korean human rights organization based in Washington, D.C., said, "When it comes to defection, there are certain psychological barriers and biases. North Koreans are regrettably taught the U.S. is the enemy, the great Satan.

“For some strange reason, although the U.K. was a combatant on the front lines of the Korean War as part of the U.N. coalition, the North Korean regime does not seem to direct the same kind of vicious, aggressive propaganda against the U.K."

Ties with Britain

Park, the Connect: North Korea activist, said, “Many North Koreans choose Britain as a destination for resettlement because North Korea and Britain have good bilateral relations.”

She first escaped North Korea in 1998 and went to China, where security police captured her in 2004. Repatriated to North Korea, she landed in a labor camp but was released after badly injuring her leg.

“They wanted me to die elsewhere,” she said. “In late 2004, I escaped North Korea for the second time.”

After reuniting with her son in China, she decided to head to South Korea until, in 2007, she met a Korean American pastor in Beijing who introduced her to U.N. officials. “They gave me options, to go to Britain or South Korea,” said Park.

She opted for Britain because if defectors are caught en route to Britain and repatriated to North Korea, “we wouldn't be punished as badly as those who were seeking to defect to South Korea. North Korea has good relations with Britain, but South Korea is an enemy country."

Learning English

Connect: North Korea is running English learning programs for North Korean defectors to help them integrate into British society. About 20 volunteer English teachers switched to online lessons after the coronavirus lockdown.

“We made the coronavirus the subject of our very first online class. I asked my student to briefly let me know what the symptoms of the virus are and what the U.K. government said people should be doing. I wanted to make sure he was aware of the new buzzwords and jargon around the coronavirus, and I also wanted him to stay safe,” said one of the English teachers, a Briton who asked to be identified only by his first name, Andrew.

The North Korean student, in his 30s, is waiting for a decision on his asylum application. He has been learning English from Andrew for three years. For him, learning English is a key to a better future.

“Wherever you live, English is a second language,” said the North Korean defector, who asked to not be identified. “I’m still young. Even though I can’t speak English well at the moment, I will continue to study hard so that more opportunities will open up for me.”