In UK, North Korean defectors raise awareness with Lunar New Year Feast

A woman with her back turned to the camera cooks while lookers-on watch from behind a raised counter.

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, like corn noodle soup, at the event.

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 including public executions, torture and prison camps where the United Nations estimates up to 120,000 people are held.

“I’m very proud to see people eating North Korean food,” said Kim, who escaped the world’s most secretive state and came to Britain over nine years ago.

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“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.

In the 1990s famine killed millions there.

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 organised the event and also provides English classes for refugees.

‘This world is always silent’

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 math 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 gruelling, and at times dangerous, trip across rural China without being detected.

But China says North Korean defectors are illegal migrants fleeing their country for economic reasons, and does not treat them as refugees. North Korea calls them criminals and describes those who try to bring them to South Korea as kidnappers.

Activists believe thousands of North Koreans are in hiding in China. Those sent back to the totalitarian state risk incarceration, forced labour and even execution.

The vast majority of North Koreans who escape to China defect to South Korea, where more than 31,000 of them have resettled, according to South Korean government data.

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.

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