Choi Joong-ha greets us in the small head office of a Korean supermarket in New Malden on a sunny afternoon. “Annyeong haseyo,” he says, bowing slightly. He leads us to an even smaller room at the back and gestures for us to sit. There is a whiteboard in the room with the words “The government’s lies are all bullshit” scribbled across it.
“I don’t really have any spare time,” he tells me, through an interpreter. “All my time is taken up by the community work I do.”
Choi is president of the North Korean Residents’ Society, which helps defectors integrate with life in the UK and helps them tell their stories. About 600 North Koreans have settled in New Malden. He has lived here for seven years with his wife and three children. He is the stock manager of Korea Foods supermarket. Choi used to serve in the North Korean military, where he worked for more than 10 years before the famine.
His childhood in North Korea was “very controlled”. From the minute they are born, North Koreans are fed pro-government propaganda and not much else. “They use hunger to brainwash you,” Choi says.
“Even baby food is rationed, you aren’t allowed to feed your baby more than the allocated amount a day. So from birth you are hungry – and hungry people cannot think of anything other than their hunger. In school and at work, you have entire lessons on how great the Kim dynasty is. That’s how they brainwash you.”
Because of this conditioning many defectors are still afraid to tell their stories.
“I was torn between loyalty and fear,” he says – loyalty to his great leaders, to whom he was expected to be grateful for having life itself, and fear they would torture and kill him and his family if they ever found them.
After defecting and working for four years in China, Choi saved up enough to pay a Chinese broker to take him and his family further away. They were given a choice of South Korea, the US or the UK. America and South Korea were known to Choi as hostile countries – “the enemy. That’s what we were taught.” So he chose UK, where the government sent them to Newcastle.
“The hardest part about coming to the UK is that I had no other skills than those I had in the military,” he recalls. “I had no other job experience either. It was very hard to pick up new skills and get another job here. English is also a barrier: I just don’t have time for classes.”
After hearing about a Korean community in New Malden, Choi decided to settle there. Some people thought he was mad for wanting to uproot his family again. “As a refugee, you just follow your survival instincts,” he says. “Your gut knows how to keep you alive.”