Despite the propaganda he had been subjected to, Joong-Ha could see the poverty around him and thought North Korea might not be the country the government made it out to be.
He remembered reading about the UK when at school and was fascinated by the history. He said: “I read about the Industrial Revolution that had happened hundreds of years ago in Britain and thought it must be a really advanced place. Economically it seemed like the most stable country I could get too.”
The trip across the river took a day and when Joong-Ha and his family got into China they had to strip off their clothes and dispose of anything that might identify them as North Korean. He said: “Just because we had got to China it didn’t mean we were safe. Every day we were fearful of being caught and being deported.
“We were lucky that my wife had family near the border and she and my son could stay with them. They helped us a lot.”
After four years working as a labourer, Joong-Ha managed to save enough money to pay a broker to take him and his family to the UK. He said: “My wife was not happy and did not want to go. She liked being with her family in China, but we could not stay because we would always be looking over our shoulder, wondering if we would be caught and sent back.”
When the family first arrived in UK they were placed in Newcastle and struggled to cope with the culture shock and the language barriers. Joong-Ha joked: “There were many days I woke up in Newcastle and thought I’d made a huge mistake. I couldn’t speak any English and could not get on with the culture in the town; it was so different from what we were used too.
“I heard there were lots of Koreans in New Malden and we decided to move down there.”
The family has now been living in New Malden for six years and in that time Joong-Ha has established himself as the chairman of the North Korean Residents’ Society. He said: “I want the North Koreans to interact in society. It is hard sometimes with the language barriers but I think it’s important for people to hear our stories.”
The 600 North Korean residents in New Malden each have a unique story of escape from the most secretive country on the planet.