‘In my nightmares I’m back in North Korea’: Army defector escapes horrors and finds sanctuary in New Malden

North Korea is arguably the most mysterious country in the world, but not for Joo-il Kim, he spent 32 years of his life there and was very well acquainted with every dark corner.

Having fled the country and now living in New Malden, Joo-il was an army captain when his disillusionment with the state regime began.

Life in the East Asian country was always brutal but the young army captain was traumatised by the stench emanating from an enormous pile of bodies left to rot in front of a train station – bodies of people who had starved to death.

Severe malnutrition has taken the lives of countless of North Koreans and Joo-il told SW Londoner he will never forget seeing female soldiers dying from hunger.

He said: “It was very gruesome because when women die from starvation they lose their hair, they don’t look like women any more.

“It was very hard to look at these women dying. Starving is the worst kind of death.”

The government statistics are never very accurate but he told us that from 1997 to 2000 three million people died of starvation.

The final, devastating blow for Joo-li Kim came when his four-year-old niece died of malnutrition.

“It was very hard to look at these women dying. Starving is the worst kind of death.”

That was when he finally decided to risk his life, and the lives of those he loved, to defect and escape to England.

He now lives in the UK where he runs a New Malden newspaper Free NK, which aims to raise awareness about North Korea.

He has now lived in London for nine years, where he is secretary of the North Korean community in New Malden, the largest in Europe.

He told us he has very fond memories of his friends and teachers while growing up in North Korea, but also remembers the brainwashing.

“I knew the country not as the most secluded state but the best state that other people looked up to and envy,” he said.

“After I left North Korea I realised it is not the most admired state but rather the darkest, with the worst conditions in the world.”

He said most North Koreans praise the regime and blame the US and the international community for the hardships suffered by the people.

Joo-il aspired to be a screenwriter but was forced to join the army as the mandatory conscription for men is ten years – women serve for six or seven years.

He initially went through military education and was hand-picked by the army to become a captain.

“There was a lot of violence between the soldiers because they lacked supplies from the government. They took their frustration out on each other and had to steal from others – it was very dark,” he said.

The 41-year-old first experienced the violent nature of the army when it was his turn to prepare the soldiers’ meal.

He didn’t know how to cook rice and so burnt it, this enraged his superior who very badly beat him.

Violence blights daily life through ruthless government-sanctioned public executions, torture, labour camps, surveillance and guilt by association, which means the family of an alleged criminal will also suffer.

Joo-il told us he saw public executions several times during his life in North Korea, from when he was very young.

“I felt horror and fear. It’s the most horrific thing anyone can ever see because when they execute a person they tie him to a pole with ropes around the head, the neck, the chest, the knees and ankles,” he said.

“The executioners shoot at the ropes by starting with the head so that the body can fall down. You can see blood exploding everywhere. It’s very scary and no one can really look at it.”

He never visited a labour camp but said everyone knows of their existence and this inspires fear.

He said a family living next door completely disappeared one day – he assumed they were taken to a camp by the secret police.

The camps are divided in two sections, the first one is the completely separated or regulated area, where prisoners spend lifetime convictions and hard labour.

The second is re-educational enlightenment camp where people are released after doing their time.

“In these camps you are treated worse than animals. You lack food, you get to sleep two to three hours a day and families are separated,” he said.

“If you die while working you don’t get a funeral, you just get buried. It is hell.”

It is hard not to associate this cruel situation with the Holocaust, and we asked Joo-il how different he thinks these two situations are.

His response was that there is a Holocaust happening in North Korea now, without the international community’s knowledge.

“If you die while working [in the labour camps] you don’t get a funeral, you just get buried. It is hell.”

“The difference between the two is that the Holocaust took place during wartime whereas North Korea is technically in peace,” he said.

“I think the situation in North Korea is actually worse because it is committed on its own people. So the fatality rate should be higher.”

Joo-il thought about defecting many times but was afraid that his family would be punished.

Whenever he visited his parents to compose his goodbyes their worried expression always got the better of him, but in 2005 there was no farewell, and Joo-li left without telling his family.

“It was really hard because my house is very near the railways so on my way north I could see my house getting farther and farther away from the train.”

He said he doesn’t know if his relatives are alive or dead and there is no way he can contact them.

Joo-li made his way to the Tumen River where he had to scramble through rocks that where heavily guarded.

He could only travel at night, and in the dark couldn’t tell which shadows and shapes were rocks and which were guards.

He used his military experience to swim to China by tying his clothes on his neck, ankles and wrists as well as using a discrete floatation device.

He made it to China after five hours where he hid in the mountains during the day.

That was when he realised that the difference between North Korea and the outside world.

“When I was hiding in the mountains I came across a fruit garden and I saw that the apples are ripe and even though they were falling no one was taking them,” he said.

“It was very different from North Korea because people would eat the apples even before they were ripe. They would eat anything they could get their hands on.”

He decided to make the long journey to the UK, travelling through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

“I had to live in dread every moment; every day was a painful struggle. It was hell.”

He finally made it to the UK where he finds things unimaginably better and feels he is ‘finally living as a human being’.

Defectors are drawn to New Malden because of the huge population of South Koreans who share the same culture, language and history.

It’s easier for them to get jobs in the numerous Korean businesses and build new friendships and social circles, to find the comforts of home so far away from their country.

However, he still thinks of North Korea as he is worried about the people living there and says he has nightmares.

“In my nightmares I am back in North Korea. When I wake up it takes some time to realise that I am safe. Sometimes I wake up several times during my sleep. I think this will continue until the day North Korea opens up and I can go back there.”

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