What do you know about North Korea? Probably, you’ve seen the almost Disney-like images of capital city Pyongyang, with its Pepto-Bismol pink architecture, military parades, empty mega-hotel and fake shops. In American film, it’s a punchline. Kim Jong-il is the camp, misunderstood and lonely dictator in Team America. His son, current leader Kim Jong-un, is mates (in real life) with eccentric former US basketball star Dennis Rodman, and he tried to ban a Seth Rogen film because it imagined his assassination. Releasing the film, Kim Jong-un said, would be considered an “act of war” and would be met with a “merciless” response. Of course, people loved this crazy news story. A deluded autocrat from a tin-pot dictatorship threatening the world’s largest superpower over a dumb comedy film! Incredible! And when Kim boasted of North Korea’s nuclear capacity last year, Donald Trump struck the same note, mocking him as “little rocket man” and a “sick puppy”.
So far, so extraordinary. But how much do you know about the lives of ordinary North Koreans? They live under a dictatorship, and go through a bizarre programme of indoctrination. Sometimes, thousands of them take part in big military parades in Pyongyang – a photo opportunity designed to show the world how well organised and dedicated they are to the leader, and to show off the state’s weapons arsenal. But ordinary North Koreans have no way to communicate with the outside world. Their stories are obscured by both propaganda (including state-sponsored press trips for Western journalists), and headline reports of the nuclear threat the country poses to the world. But some defectors do manage to escape North Korea, and they want us to know what ‘normal’ life is like under the brutal regime.
A new film, released online today, tells the story of Joong-wha Choi, a North Korean refugee living with his family in New Malden – a southwest London suburb dubbed ‘Little Pyongyang’ for having the highest number of North Koreans outside North and South Korea. The film, a stylised documentary short from young London director Roxy Rezvany, is also called Little Pyongyang, but places Joong-wha in a colourful, artificial set – reminiscent of the grand (but deceptive) architecture of Pyongyang. He tells us about his life, from his love of ice skating and childhood games to caring for his brother, who had a mental illness, and the desperate struggle for survival that made up his mind to escape.
When a famine swept North Korea – due to failed government food distribution, flooding destroying crops, and the fall of other ‘Communist’ countries, including, eventually, the Soviet Union in 1991 – Joong-wha explains that people were reduced to eating grass, “as if we were rabbits”. He and his brother were starving. “I agonised over one bowl of cooked rice,” Joong-wha says in the film. “It seemed right to give it to my brother, who had a disability. But if I didn’t eat and died, my brother would have died after me as he would have no one to look after him. So I ate it and survived, but my brother died of malnutrition afterwards.” Horrific instances like this, Joong-wha says, are what led him to question the regime, and think about escape.
At least 30,000 refugees have escaped from North Korea, prompted by the famine, human rights abuses, and political oppression. After the number soared in 2016, North Korea and China made the borders even harder to cross, and the numbers plummeted in 2017. Of those escapees, however, an extraordinary number are women: 83% in 2017. To find out why, Refinery29 met with Jihyun Park, a defector and human rights activist who has lived as a refugee in Manchester since 2008 – and who has been supporting the release of Little Pyongyang. The reasons Jihyun decribes are both fascinating and harrowing.
Jihyun was in her mid-20s when the famine began. “I saw many dead bodies in the street, in the market, at stations. I was a high school teacher, and, in my register, every day [children] were missing, missing,” she says. Sometimes, she found their dead bodies outside the school. But Jihyun was completely indoctrinated in the ideology of the regime – she taught it to her students every day. “I saw all the dead bodies, but I continued to believe the regime [which denied the famine],” Jihyun says, “I thought that maybe they would quickly solve the problems, and after that life would be normal.”
It wasn’t until Jihyun watched her uncle die of starvation in 1993 that she realised the regime was lying. “I saw what he did every day, every minute, every second. He would quickly eat lots of food, and then run out to the toilet, and have diarrhoea. In the night he didn’t sleep; he went to the kitchen to find food, but it was empty. He would shout, he was angry,” Jihyun says. “I had seen lots of dead bodies,” she explains, “but then I saw how the starving people live.” Children and the elderly were the first to die. Others continued to work, to keep society functioning on some level. “The government didn’t give us any rice, or any salary,” Jihyun says, “but people continued to work to death.”
In North Korea, every boy enters the military at 17, if he is physically able, and serves for 10 years. “So in companies and universities, it’s mainly women,” Jihyun explains. “We have lots more experience than men, because a man has only joined the military, but we are [working in the] economy, in agriculture, everywhere.” When the men come back from service, however, they are still put in positions of power over women workers. “North Korea never accepts our skills, our education,” Jihyun says. “And when we marry, we resign our job and become a housewife.” During the famine, men continued to work for no money and no food. But women were offered another way to financially support their family.
‘Brokers’ were able to smuggle people across the border into China, where they said there would be well paid jobs for women, working in restaurants or as housekeepers. Jihyun travelled over the border with one such ‘broker’, but he turned out to be a human trafficker and she was sold to a Chinese man as a domestic slave, and sex slave. Jihyun gave birth to his son before being discovered by the Chinese government and deported back to North Korea, where she was held in a hard labour camp. The guards beat her badly and she was working in sewage. Eventually, a leg injury became swollen with gangrene, and Jihyun could no longer work. Because she was useless to them, she was released.
No one was there to meet Jihyun when she left the prison camp, and she knew she had to escape once more. “I only thought about my son. That gave me the hope and the power,” she tells me. “The first time I thought about the politics, but the second time I only thought about my son. I just needed to survive, to escape North Korea once again.” Escaping again into China, Jihyun found her son, who was still living with his paternal grandmother. They then escaped into Mongolia, but Jihyun couldn’t run; a man saw them, picked up her child, and helped them to get away – he is now Jihyun’s husband. After a time working selling food, Jihyun was put in touch with a UN officer in Beijing, and eventually the family was granted asylum in the UK.
While filming Little Pyongyang, director Roxy Rezvany also spoke with Joong-wha’s wife Yun-Ah. Although her comments did not make it into the final film, Roxy gave Refinery29 exclusive access to the footage, so we could hear from another woman defector. While Jihyun is an outspoken activist, and has told her painful story many times over, other refugees, including Yun-Ah, don't feel comfortable talking about the details of their escape, which can often be traumatic. However, Yun-Ah’s story illustrates how many defectors feel about their homeland: they miss their old lives and their identities before they were refugees. Many hope that Korea will reunite and they will be able to return.
“I lived in North Korea longer than I have [lived] here,” Yun-Ah says in the film. “Here, [defectors] might make connections through similar burdens, but I had many friends when I lived in North Korea for almost 30 years. I miss them a lot.” Her friendship group was centred around a sports club, where they played a form of baseball. “I spent my youth in North Korea. If Korea reunifies, firstly I want to see my friends,” she says, adding that she would ask if they still have photographs taken in their youth. Working at the sports club, Yun-Ah earned 120 North Korean Won – “It had a value of about £1,200,” she says, “and with 10 Won you could get 2kg of rice.” – so she could afford to take pictures and have them developed. “I took a lot of pictures, especially when we used to visit Pyongyang twice a year,” Yun-Ah explains. “But when I was fleeing, I burned all my photographs, just in case I was caught. I don’t have a single photograph left of my memories.”
Living in London, North Koreans are free from the brutal regime, but the struggle continues for the people still living there. And bringing children up in the UK has its own issues. Jihyun couldn’t read the letter offering her son a private school scholarship, and so she didn’t know to accept. Both Jihyun and Joong-wha express their sadness at the language barrier with their own children. “My children don’t really understand the meaning of human rights yet,” Joong-wha says in the film, explaining: “It’s difficult for children to understand. They would ask: ‘Why did you live there?’ Because they grew up in the UK, the language barrier can make communicating difficult. It isn’t easy to have an in-depth conversation.” Jihyun’s son once asked why she had “abandoned” him in China. “When I heard this question I cried, because it was the first time I knew he had painful stories in his mind [too],” Jihyun tells me. “I saw a different person’s story. But it’s not just my story, my son’s story,” she says. “This is the story of all North Korean women and children.”
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By telling the stories of their lives, from the joys of their childhood to their education and careers, their family stories and how they loved the countryside where they lived, these North Korean defectors are trying to show us their humanity. Their country might be a joke in parts of our culture, but the refugees don’t understand why their struggle, and the ongoing struggle of their people – which Jihyun considers a genocide – isn’t getting our attention. “English people only see newspaper and TV [coverage of] a military nation, they watch the discipline,” Jihyun says. “But North Koreans are the same [as us]. They are also humans. They are people who matter to us.”