North Koreans in London struggle to send news home

Story highlights

  • New Malden, a London suburb, is home to 700 North Koreans
  • Defectors struggle to get news of those they left behind

New Malden, United Kingdom (CNN)The middle-class London suburb of New Malden is the unlikely headquarters of one man's efforts to liberate North Koreans.

Former North Korean soldier, now defector, Joo Il Kim publishes a newspaper Free NK, which he hopes will awaken his fellow citizens by giving them a glimpse of the outside world.
    "Because they are brainwashed, even if we deliver the truth, they can't see it," Kim said, "I think the key is to give information that the North Korean citizens will not be afraid to have. Something like pop culture which they are curious about or some fun news that occurs in the world society would be one way to do it."
    The 43-year old publishes his paper from New Malden, a 30-minute train ride from central London, which is home to an estimated 10,000 ethnic Koreans.
    Among them are about 700 North Koreans, the largest such community in Europe.
    The South Korean embassy was once based in New Malden, and it's where tech company Samsung first established its European headquarters.
    Both have since left, but the Korean diaspora still uses it as a base to ease the transition to the West and remain close to members of their community.

    Defectors work in kitchens

    Dozens of Korean restaurants line New Malden's streets, where some North Korean defectors work in the kitchens preparing classic dishes from home -- kimchi and barbecue meat.
    The latest volley of threats between United States and North Korea has some worried in this community, but they cannot check on their families still inside the country. Communication with the outside world is extremely difficult in North Korea, and calls home carry great risk.
    One defector, activist Jihyun Park told CNN that she once tried to contact her brother-in-law in North Korea.
    A couple of years ago, she paid a smuggler in China 1,000 pounds ($1,300) to get a prepaid cellphone to his home in North Korea.
    The phone call cost her brother-in-law much more. He was sent to a labor camp for six months, Park later heard.
    CNN meets families of North Korean defectors
    north korean defectors families_00002426


      CNN meets families of North Korean defectors


    CNN meets families of North Korean defectors 03:13

    Dance of defiance

    The fear of detention sent Hyunjoo Kim, another defector living in New Malden, on a harrowing escape journey out of her homeland.
    "I thought instead of being captured and dying in the prison as a political criminal, dying while I swim would be the same thing," she said.
    In 2004, Kim, 63, and her nephew jumped into the Yalu River and swam eight hours until the pair reached China.
    "I left without knowing about the outside world, I lived in North Korea without knowing that the world out here has freedom and happiness, but once I got out, it seems like the people there are all living a lie," Kim said.
    In New Malden, Kim is pursuing her twin passions: music and faith. After moving to the UK she turned to Christianity and plays the Janggu, a traditional Korean drum, in her local church.
    Hyunjoo Kim dances at a New Malden restaurant.
    Kim struggles with life in the UK and still can't speak English, but with its dozens of Korean establishments, New Malden offers a safe haven.
    After a traditional meal of kimchi pancakes and fish stew, the music teacher performs a dance to a Korean song called "By the Love of My Lord."
    Its Christian lyrics would have sent her to prison or worse in North Korea, where there is only one higher power: the country's leader, Kim Jong Un.
    But here, she is free to sway and twirl as the restaurant staff nod along to the music.
    North Korean defector reveals smuggling operation
    North Korean defector reveals smuggling operation


      North Korean defector reveals smuggling operation


    North Korean defector reveals smuggling operation 02:35

    Sending news home

    Joo Il Kim told CNN he too was once unequivocally loyal to the North Korean regime.
    "When I was in North Korea, I was a model student," Kim said, "From the time I was in school, I trusted the text books 100% and trusted the North Korean government's revolution. Simply put, I grew up trusting the North Korean regime completely."
    He joined the army and was a loyal soldier of the ruling dynasty that began with founder Kim Il Sung, but that changed after he saw his nephew starve to death before his eyes. He defected, brazenly crossing the border into China in 2007 while still wearing his military uniform.
    CNN was unable to independently verify the details of Kim's or Park's story.
    Like many in New Malden, Kim does not know if his family in North Korea is dead or alive. He simply tries not to let these thoughts enter his mind.
    "I believe there must have been a punishment. Perhaps, punishment that I cannot even imagine," Kim said.
    North Korean defectors say they have seen families of other defectors punished in order to deter their countrymen from leaving. Pyongyang also operates under a system in which families can be collectively punished for the crimes of an individual.
    "I try not think about it now, because if there is emotion involving your family, you cannot perform this job. I would be an emotional hostage of the North Korean regime, I do not seek the ways to find my family until the day I go back to North Korea," he added.
    Joo Il Kim shows CNN a copy of Free NK.
    The only way he and the hundreds living just outside London can return is if the North Korean regime changes, and that's exactly what Kim is trying to do with his newspaper.
    "We are putting helium in the balloon and attaching the newspaper on the side, and because they shoot at it, we only do it at night time," Kim said, as he showed a video of him sending copies of Free NK by hot air balloon across the South Korean border.
    The father of two is constantly trying to find creative ways to send news home. He believes the only solution to the crisis is to educate North Korean citizens.
    "If I am the only one enjoying the wealth and comfort here just by myself, I will feel guilty towards the people left behind in North Korea," he said.
    "As long as I am here in a free land, I will never starve to death even if I don't do anything. But the North Koreans are suffering every day, hungry and mistreated every day."