When Kim Song-ju escaped North Korea through China he opted to head to Britain 10 years ago instead of South Korea, hoping to avoid discrimination.
But while he found work and a family home in a well-established Korean community in southwest London, he also encountered the social stratification he had travelled thousands of miles to evade.
“Most of my friends here are North Koreans,” he told AFP through a translator in the offices of a dissident newspaper in New Malden, where he helps out during time off from his job at a Korean supermarket.
The former electrician said when he spoke to people from the south, “it’s about golf or New Malden, but when we talk about life experiences it becomes difficult to understand each other”.
As US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hold a historic summit in Singapore Tuesday, many here are wondering if it could herald the first tentative step towards the eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula.
But this quiet corner of southwest London provides a rare window on the complexities of trying to reunite two countries severed through six decades of acrimony.
“We’re separate communities,” said another local exile, Choi Joong Wha, a father-of-three and former soldier in North Korea who arrived in Britain around a decade ago.
“We have been told that this is a small model trial of reunification,” he added. “We tried over many years, events where we invited each other, giving speeches. It didn’t work.”
‘People to be feared’
New Malden is home to an estimated 12,000 immigrants from South Korea, initially drawn to the area by an embassy nearby, which has since relocated, and the presence of Samsung’s former UK headquarters.
In the last decade they have been joined by as many as 700 North Korean exiles, one of the largest such groups anywhere in the world.
“New Malden is a unique place in the world for South and North Koreans to be living together,” said Ha Jaesung, a local councillor.
“But there are invisible gaps… there’s a great difference between us — even our way of talking now.”
Ha admitted he was scared when he encountered a North Korean for the first time in his life at a parent-teacher evening at his children’s school.
“We were educated that North Koreans were to be feared,” he said, adding he was shocked to find they were actually similar to him in many ways.
The divide in New Malden is accentuated by employment, with North Koreans tending to work for South Koreans in low-paid service roles.
“The South and North Koreans do mingle but it’s more of a business relationship,” said restaurant owner Jang Eun-Jean, 52, who arrived in Britain in the 1980s.
She accused North Koreans of having a “different work ethic”.
By contrast, Kim speculated his South Korean neighbours were jealous that North Koreans got more state benefits.
Tuesday’s Singapore summit has split opinion, with South Korean immigrants voicing more optimism.
“North Koreans are not as excited about it — it’s not the first time the regime has tried to come to an agreement,” said Choi, lamenting neglect of the north’s continuing human rights abuses.
But bridges are being built in New Malden.
At a centre for older people, around 15 North Koreans have joined those from the South to take part in traditional Korean dancing, singing and cooking.
“We’re finally starting to get along, mixing together,” said chair Sun Hwa Griffiths.
She added: “I can see people are starting to open their mind, I think a lot of people are starting to understand that we have to.”
A 77-year-old member, who fled starvation in North Korea with her daughter a decade ago, and asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals on remaining relatives, said integration had been her saviour.
“At the beginning it was very difficult, particularly because of the language barrier and competitive environment,” she said through a translator.
She added that relations at the centre were now so improved she had forgotten who was from the north and the south.
“Of course we really wish for this summit to go well and to be reunited as one nation. We are one people, sharing the same language, same blood.” she said.
Ha, the councillor who once feared North Koreans, also fought recently to get three exiles admitted to a residents association board.
“In the near future our children and North Korean children will be friends when they grow up,” he said.
“They won’t think about differences. The gap will have disappeared here in four or five years.” AFP