Should Kim Jong-un ever declare war on Britain, his attack plans may not just stop at Downing Street, Parliament and Buckingham Palace. Instead, his agents may head down the A3 as it winds through south-west London, until they reach the Wyvern industrial estate in the Surrey suburb of New Malden. For here, tucked behind the outpost of Yankee imperialism that is the Krispy Kreme Doughnut shop, lies an unlikely nerve centre of opposition to Pyonyang’s brutal rule.
Operating from a drab office above a Korean food wholesaler is the Free NK newspaper, run by Joo-il Kim, an army captain who defected from North Korea’s socialist utopia in 2007.
Today, the self-styled revolutionary claims to have witnessed a genuine paradise on earth – and if he ever succeeds in overthrowing Kim Jong-un’s regime, he hopes to replace it with something just like New Malden.
“Life in New Malden is just unimaginably better than in that in North Korea,” he said. “When the regime in Pyongyang collapses, my aim is to rebuild it with the lessons I have learned in the UK. We will have proper education, decent social welfare, and a transport and tax system.”
Welcome – or, as they say round here, hwan young hamnida – to one of Britain’s most secret expatriate communities, the North Koreans of New Malden, aka Little Pyongyang.
Just 20-minute’s train ride from Waterloo, the suburb’s rows of post-war semis are better known as the backdrop to sitcoms like Bless this House and the Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.
뉴몰든에 오신 것을 환영합니다 (How a North Korean would say “Welcome to New Malden”)
Today, though, it is home to some 20,000 Koreans, who have flocked here ever since the 1960s, when several south Korean manufacturing firms based themselves in the area.
The North Korean contingent, made up almost entirely of defectors, numbers only around 700, most of whom keep a low profile and do menial jobs in South Korean-owned restaurants and shops that line the high street.
But even so, it is still the largest North Korean community in Europe – and a potential bastion of opposition to Kim Jong-un, who last week celebrated his third year in power.
Hence Mr Joo-il’s efforts to galvanise them via the Free NK, which vies for readers with the Surrey Comet, and mixes routine local news items with the antics of one of the world’s most feared dictators.
Recent headlines, for example, have alternated between “Kingston’s old Post Office to be restored” and “North Korea bans recycling of Kim Jong-un’s image”. The latter was a report about the regime forbidding the pulping of any newspaper carrying pictures of the Supreme Leader (which is more or less all of them).
Last week, Mr Joo-il was also looking into the reports that a North Korean team had hacked into Sony Pictures, effectively blackmailing the company into cancelling the screening of The Interview, a film lampooning Kim Jong Un.
Voice of dissent – the Free NK newspaper
Pyongyang’s furious denials of involvement do not convince Free NK’s editor, who says his own online edition was hacked into eight months ago.
“Lots of articles were removed, especially ones that talked about the Kim family,” he said. “It was either the regime, or people hired by them.”
On the face of it, it is hard to imagine Mr Joo-il’s operation playing a role in one of Kim Jong-un’s Bond villain-style intrigues.
His modest bureau, which is stacked with crates of noodle cup-a-soups and a karoake machine, looks more like part of the backdrop for The Office, Ricky Gervais’s comedy set in a drab industrial estate.
Yet there is nothing funny about the tale of how he got here, which serves as a reminder that for all the jokes in the West about Pyongyang’s eccentric regime, it remains a horrifying place for most of the 25 million people who live there.
For Mr Joo-il, who grew up “brainwashed into thinking that North Korea was the best country in the world,” the first inkling that not everything was right was when he joined the army.
The troops of what he had been told was the world’s most formidable military wore tatty, second-hand uniforms, and spent much of their time looting, fighting and deserting.
What really convinced him, however, was the death of his sister’s daughter in 1997, at the height of the four-year famine that killed anything up to three million people.
It happened after he visited the family home while on leave, when his sister fed him the only food in the house rather than admit they had no food.
Three days later, her daughter found herself so hungry that she ate some uncooked corn she found, washing the dry mouthfuls down with water. It then expanded in her stomach, killing her.
Even so, fear of reprisals against his family meant it was another six years before Mr Joo-il finally fled. Armed with a knife to cut his own throat if he was caught, he crossed the River Tumen into China, where a few hours spent hiding in an orchard proved that his doubts about North Korea had been right all along.
“The apples there were of a size I’d never seen, much bigger than the tiny ones you got in North Korea,” he said. “Yet here, nobody was even bothering to eat them. It made me realise that North Korea was a hell, and this was a heaven.”
Paradise thought it may be, China has no compunction about handing illegal North Korean emigres back to the regime, so Mr Joo-il pressed on to Thailand, where he met a network of NGOs that specialise in helping North Koreans find asylum around the world.
Mr Joo-il opted for Britain, partly as a result of his fond memories of watching Unsung Heroes, a famous North Korean spy movie which features a friendly British officer.
He also calculated, though, that the reprisals against his extended family would be less than if he went to South Korea or the US, which the regime considers treats as mortal foes. To this day, though, he does not know whether his relatives are dead or alive, or in jail.
Having arrived in London on what he admits was probably a forged passport, Mr Joo-il was initially sent up to Liverpool under the government’s asylums-seekers dispersal scheme. But like most other North Koreans, he then gravitated back to New Malden.
Stacking up opposition – when not campaigning against Kim Jong-un, defector Choi Joong Wa works as a warehouseman
“It is much easier for us to settle here in New Malden as there are other Koreans here who speak our language and can find us jobs,” said his fellow defecotor, Choi Joong Wa, who previously lived in Benwell, Newcastle, where the rows of boarded-up houses, drug-dealing and constant buzz of police helicopters showed him that not everywhere in Britain is that much nicer than North Korea. “You cannot really compare the two, of course, but it did make me realise that not everybody here is a British gentleman,” he said.
Today, Mr Choi works alongside Mr Joo-il on the newspaper, while also working as a warehouse foreman at the food wholesaler next door, stacking huge Chinese apples and Korean delicacies like kimchi, a pickled cabbage.
Jaesung Ha, the store’s director, employs around 10 North Koreans among his 40 staff, and says that whatever the hostilities between North and South back home, they melt in the workplaces and karaoke bars of New Malden.
“Some South Koreans think the northerners are only here to claim benefits, but personally I get on with them very well,” he said. “They don’t understand the capitalist system when they first arrive here, and in the past I’ve had to show them things like how to open a bank account. But these days, I find them very good employees. There’s a professor from South Korea who told me that New Malden is the only place in the world where North Koreans, South Koreans and Chinese Koreans all get on well. It’s a very unique place.”
Indeed, the only people who attract any suspicion around New Malden are officials from the North Korean embassy. They too favour an unlikely suburban location, basing their mission in a detached house on Gunnersbury Avenue, Ealing, just a few miles north.
Mr Joo-il suspects that its staff are supposed to monitor his activties, although his encounters with them so far have not exactly been the stuff of spy novels.
The ‘Axis of Evil’ on Gunnersbury Avenue: North Korea’s embassy in Ealing
Sometimes he sees them shopping in the grocer’s beneath his offices, where they often seem to be short of cash. At other times he has spotted them at a car boot sale in Guildford, picking up second-hand office supplies.
“When I saw them in the grocers, they didn’t have enough cash for what they wanted,” he said. “I offered them to lend them some but they said ’no’. To be honest, I actually feel sorry for them. Back in North Korea, we would have to look up to these people, but over here it seems they can’t even afford to eat.”