As Minji Kim sliced spring onions and stirred pots of broth with dumplings in a pop-up kitchen in east London, the North Korean defector beamed with pride knowing that dozens of Britons had come to celebrate Lunar New Year and taste North Korean cuisine. Kim, who declined to reveal her real name fearing repercussions since her family is still in North Korea, said she was delighted to demonstrate how to make her country’s specialities. “I feel grateful because, in a way, it means that there’s interest in North Korean people and culture,” the 42-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation through a translator.
Kim is one of about 700 North Korean refugees living in New Malden, southwest of London, who have fled the regime accused of widespread human rights abuses.
Another refugee, Jihyun Park, who was granted asylum in Britain in 2008, said she hoped efforts like the Lunar New Year event could help raise awareness of their plight. “When we eat together and have a meal and we talk … we can learn about other people, they also learn about us,” said Park, who is also an outreach manager with Connect North Korea, the group that organized the event and also provides English classes for refugees.
Though she has lived in Britain for a decade, Park said the existence of the North Korean community in the country remains under the radar. “Many people are surprised that there are North Koreans here. They say, ‘You are really North Korean?’ said Park, a former maths teacher who was sold to a Chinese farmer when she crossed the border into China.
Safe passage for defectors fleeing the oppressive regime often depends on their ability to make the grueling, and at times dangerous, trip across rural China without being detected. Activists believe thousands of North Koreans are in hiding in China. Those sent back to the totalitarian state risk incarceration, forced labor and even execution.
Park said she hopes the international community will do more to help defectors and speak up against the regime. “No one helps us. It’s up to ourselves to find freedom. This world is always silent,” Park said.