North Koreans Come to London
August 1, 2018
London’s very own Korea Town lies in the city’s southwest, half an hour away from the city center by train. Korean restaurants, supermarkets, hairdressers, local newspapers, and the odd noraebang dot the suburb of New Malden, where South Korean embassy staff, Samsung workers, and London university students mingle with each other, as well as with some 700 North Koreans. This leafy area 5,400 miles away from North Korea hosts what many think is the largest North Korean diaspora outside of Asia.
“Little Pyongyang,” as many of its North Korean residents call the area, has become the unlikely home for a growing number of North Korean refugees who have been able to leave the country. Even though they sometimes struggle to adapt, many of them seem to be able to settle into their new lives with relative ease. It helps that many businesses in the area have signs and other materials available in hangul. North Korean resident associations also provide support to new arrivals as they seek to integrate. Furthermore, the up to 12,000 Koreans and several hundred Korean-Chinese who live in the area offer employment opportunities in existing businesses as well as for manual workers such as electricians or cleaners.
But what drives hundreds of North Koreans to decide to settle so far away from their home country? Three main factors explain this decision. To begin with, it has been well documented that there is a subset of North Korean refugees who fail to adapt to life in South Korea or China. These two countries host the largest numbers of North Koreans living outside of their own country. But it is not always easy to integrate in societies that look similar on the surface but that are not so alike in reality. Some North Koreans even feel stigmatized, since their physical appearance and accent can betray their origin and, in their view, stifle their life opportunities.
Indeed, existing studies of North Korean refugees living in South Korea show that large numbers of them are unable to compete in the labor market with more highly-skilled South Korean workers. This makes them discouraged, leading to disengagement from mainstream society. Moving overseas gives them the chance to start a new life. As migrants from many other countries have discovered, London is a great place to reinvent themselves. North Koreans in London are simply part of the city’s Asian community. There is no stigma attached to coming from North Korea.
Another reason why the United Kingdom is a preferred destination for North Korean refugees is its distance from North Korea itself. Many refugees have had to endure many sacrifices on their way out. It is not uncommon for them to have family imprisoned or worse back home. Living far away helps them to heal their mental wounds. Especially, and perhaps counterintuitively, since Northeast Asia in general and North Korea in particular are not as present in daily conversation and on the media as it is in China or South Korea.
Furthermore, the United Kingdom is not the United States—a country that North Koreans learn to hate as part of their school education. Indeed, portrayals of Europe, and especially the United Kingdom, in North Korean textbooks are not necessarily antagonistic. This increases the attractiveness of the country for North Korean refugees who otherwise might have thought twice before moving to a Western country.
It is important to understand that word of mouth helps to explain why southwest London is a popular destination among North Korean refugees. South Koreans first started to move to the New Malden area when a former South Korean ambassador to the United Kingdom settled there in the 1960s. Samsung’s UK headquarters then opened in the area in the 1980s. This attracted evermore South Koreans. Even as future ambassadors changed their residence and Samsung moved its offices to central London, the area’s spacious and relatively cheap housing as well as it high-quality public schools continued to attract South Koreans coming to the United Kingdom. Likewise, North Koreans who yearn to leave Asia learn that southwest London is an area where they can find good housing and education for their children. The internet, migration brokers, and centers such as the Korean Information Centre help to spread this information.
In a sense, New Malden’s Korea Town offers a glimpse into something that is often forgotten: ordinary North Koreans simply want a better life for themselves and their families. And they will travel from one end of Eurasia to the other to find it if necessary. As talk about inter-Korean reconciliation and a peace regime for the Korean Peninsula gathers momentum, a visit to southwest London can help us better understand how the people of North Korea think and live when in a freer society.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo is KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and associate professor in International Relations at King’s College London.