In the rooms above the Korea Foods superstore in New Malden are the unglamorous offices of Free NK, a North Korean newspaper run by Kim Joo Il, another defector.
“If you actually compare two lives, one in North Korea and the other one in New Malden, the difference is like hell and heaven,” the 43-year-old told NBC News.
When he lived in North Korea, he served as an officer in the Korean People’s Army and it was his job to catch defectors. He knew the risks of trying to flee. “They were all dealt with by military law, which meant public execution,” Kim Joo Il said.
According to him, the country’s feared secret police has a network of spies so extensive that one out of every three citizens is an informant. “Your lives are under surveillance every single moment,” he said. “Kim Jong Un has told his people that the tiniest thing, even the drop of a needle to the floor, should be reported back to him.”
Despite being aware of the potential consequences, he decided to take his chances and make a break for it across the Chinese border. “This is not a choice that you make in a day,” he said. “This is based on a long-term emotional process. You make up your mind to escape from North Korea, and then you give up on the idea, and then you make up your mind again, and then you give up again. You go through this process so many times you cannot imagine how many times.”
Kim Joo Il was single when he fled, but he had to consider the consequences his escape would have on his remaining family members. “It’s not just the family that you have in mind, you’ve got to actually be prepared to die, really, while escaping,” he said. “Personally it took me eight years to finally make up my mind and in the eighth year I made my escape.”
From China, he walked, hitched rides, and scraped together enough money for the occasional train or bus fare. He traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia and finally Thailand, where he got a plane ticket to the U.K.
He publishes the Free NK newspaper both in print and online, employing around five members of staff — both North and South Koreans — and highlighting the atrocities the regime is inflicting on his countrymen. Not only does he circulate the newspaper locally, he sends the digital files to South Korea where they are printed out, attached to balloons and dropped over North Korea as anti-regime propaganda.
Now well-known as a figurehead in the New Malden community, Kim Joo Il is determined to be a thorn in the side of the dictatorship.