Joo-il Kim grew up thinking North Korea was paradise.
Then he learned that his two-year-old niece, who was so hungry she had eaten uncooked corn and washed it down the mouthfuls with water, died after it expanded in her stomach and killed her. He would later learn that when he visited his family, they would feed him the only food they had in the house rather than let him know they had nothing for themselves.
It took him a long time to consider that the messages that he had been indoctrinated with since birth may be false. His mind changed after a new role in the military gave him the rare privilege to travel freely around the country. He was tasked with rounding up deserters, and it exposed him to the widespread starvation during the height of a four-year famine that killed an estimated three million people.
He recalls seeing piles of emaciated corpses outside health centers, in a country where supposedly no one went hungry. ‘I started to question whether the country existed for the people or for the dictator,’ he added. ‘I decided to escape North Korea to find the answer in the outside world.’
At age 32, armed with a knife that he would use to slit his throat if caught, he slipped into the heavily-guarded Tumen River in Hoeryong under the cover of darkness and swam to China. Fearful his status as an illegal immigrant may get him deported back to the regime and certain death, he pressed on to Thailand where he met a group that specializes in helping North Koreans find asylum.
He opted for London, where he now lives in New Malden with hundreds of other defectors, in a larger Korean community.