Around 5,300 miles from North Korea’s brutal dictatorship, the bland commuter suburb of New Malden (“Little Pyongyang”) has become an improbable home to hundreds of escapees.
New Malden sits on the edge of the British capital and the rural county of Surrey. It’s the type of place that, despite its ZIP code, most city-dwellers might dismiss as not-really-London. It boasts a huge Korean population, officially around 3,500 but with some estimates putting it closer to 20,000 in the wider borough. Of this community, several hundred are North Korean — making it the largest such community in Europe and one of the biggest outside the Korean Peninsula.
Kim Kwang Myong’s story is a common one. Like many people here, he fled North Korea but left family members behind. The regime often exercises a merciless policy of collective punishment against remaining relatives, sending them to labor camps, or worse. “My big brother is currently in prison in North Korea and he’s not getting released any time soon,” Kim Kwang Myong told NBC News. “The reason he is in prison is because of us fleeing the country.”
Picking his moment, Kim bribed some border guards to vacate a stretch of North Korea’s river border with China, allowing him to cross with his wife and two children. That was 20 years ago. He has since lived illegally in China and then in South Korea before coming to the U.K. four years ago.
Kim has tried to help his relatives who stayed behind by sending them money. It was this that led to them being punished after authorities discovered the transactions. “My younger brother was sent to prison and stayed there for one year but got released. But my big brother has not been so lucky,” he said.
His family has suffered, and that knowledge weighs heavily on Kim.
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