There is perhaps one thing that unites radicals and revolutionaries from all countries, and most ages: London. At some point or another, most of the great political dissenters and activists, Voltaire, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Sun Yat-sen and even Ho Chi Minh have found themselves on the streets of our capital, plotting and writing in tiny back rooms. For 300 hundred years, it has been famous for its political tolerance in a temperamental and oppressive world. And as I’ve discovered, London is once again a home to revolutionaries; to defectors from the planet’s most oppressive regime.
I am sitting in a small underground room lit by a dingy orange lamp. A small group of North Korean exiles sit around me. It is the first meeting of their new resistance group and at the head of the table is Kim Jooil, their leader. He is talking about how to overthrow the Communist regime in Pyongyang. I listen as they try to organise themselves.
‘Our opposition must be based in Europe.’ That much at least they all agree on. ‘The number of our defectors in Europe is growing. We must organise events in Europe.’ Why Europe, I ask. Most defectors are based in South Korea; surely that is the best place to organise a rebellion? There is a general tutting of disagreement.
‘Europe is not the enemy of North Korea,’ Kim explains to me. ‘If the North Korean government learned that we were based in South Korea or America, then they would use us as… as…’ — he struggles for the right word. ‘Propaganda,’ says a man in the corner, in a low growl.
Nowhere in Europe is better, it turns out, than Britain. There are more North Korean defectors legally settled here than in any other country in the world, bar South Korea. The number of North Koreans defecting to the south has increased from just 306 between 1994 and 1998, to 2,927 in 2009 alone, while at the same time the number of refugees living in Britain has gone from none to 574. Such has been the rate of increase that the British government has been forced to introduce measures to make sure that those who claim asylum are genuine refugees and not simply South Koreans looking for an easy ticket over here.
After they arrive, most North Koreans settle and disappear — after a lifetime of persecution, blissful anonymity is usually irresistible. Those who choose to use their newfound freedom to call for change are few and far between.
If you can find them, meeting North Korean campaigners is a fascinating and sometimes terrifying experience, because they offer an insight into both the thoughts of the modern revolutionary, and a horrific world that the West knows nothing about. North Korea is the terra incognita of the 21st century, the last country around which the Iron Curtain is still wrapped. Were you to visit, you would not be permitted to see the real hardship that lies beyond the show capital of Pyongyang, and official propaganda only offers you the bright charade of a communist utopia. These escapees’s memories are the only window we have into real life in the tiny dictatorship. Even so, survivors often struggle to find the words to describe the lives they once led.
‘You can’t compare living in Britain to living in North Korea,’ says one. ‘It’s like trying to describe the difference between heaven and hell.’ ‘Hell’ is an apt metaphor. North Korea sounds more like Dante’s Inferno than Nineteen Eighty-Four. Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born and raised in a prison camp, says: ‘The conditions are probably unimaginable for most of you. The teachers are also prison guards, so when they come into the class to teach us, they come with guns and sticks to beat us and threaten us. No matter how old you are, whether you are a woman, man or young child, everyone gets severely punished and, at the discretion of any member of the prison guards, you can die.’
Hours ago, it was announced that Kim Jong-il had died and I am back in London, in a building hidden behind a labyrinth of stores and warehouses, to ask Kim Jooil what he has to say about the ‘Dear Leader’. Memories of starvation fuel his hatred of the late dictator. ‘He never worked for his people,’ he says. ‘Almost three million people have died of poverty, they are hungry. He did not provide enough food, yet he retained his lofty life.’ Food shortages and famines have been a regular feature of North Korean life since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the drying up of Soviet aid. The consequences of Pyongyang’s refusal to abandon its left-wing centralisation is seen in a few non-official photos of a devastated landscape and starving children. There are accounts of people eating their pets and foraging for roots. Estimates of the number who died during the 1990s range from 220,000 (Pyongyang’s official claim) to 3.5 million (various independent studies).
The defectors illustrate these statistics with awful anecdotes. Choi Joonj Wha was a surgeon in the North Korean army before he fled the regime. ‘In three and a half years, I lost my three brothers. They all died from a lack of food, that was the main reason that I decided to leave.’ ‘Sorry,’ I say, inadequately. He gives a bitter laugh: ‘People there are accustomed to people dying of poverty and lack of nutrition.’ Kim Jooil had similar experiences: ‘When I served as an officer, I had to look after 100 soldiers, and there was a lack of food. Many of them tried to escape the army, so we had to track them down and capture them. I travelled all over the country and I saw many people in poverty and starving, many starving to death.’
Won’t hunger breed rebellion, I ask. What chance is there of a Pyongyang Spring? Choi explains: unlike in the Arab world and, to a lesser extent, China, there is no knowledge of alternative ideologies and news stations such as al-Jazeera simply don’t exist. People are raised in servitude with no access to the wider world. ‘They don’t know they live in the most oppressive regime in the world, they have no understanding of freedom,’ says Choi. ‘Only once you escape do you realise that freedom exists for communication and speech — that other people have the freedom to build their own world.’
Yet things change. In the weeks following the Dear Leader’s death and the ascension of the unknown Kim Jong-un, it has become increasingly clear that, for the first time in 60 years, the government in Pyongyang lacks authority. The defectors are dismissive: ‘I’ve never heard of him’, ‘he’s just a puppet’, ‘it doesn’t matter what he wants’. If these sentiments are shared by their countrymen in North Korea, then perhaps the fanatical, fear-fuelled loyalty to the regime will begin to ebb; perhaps resentment will rise.
I am invited to another meeting, this time in the back room of a top restaurant. It’s not just the venue that has improved. There are a lot of new faces; talk of international contacts, discussions about campaign strategies and plans for refugees from around the world to come to London for what they are calling the first ‘International Defectors Representatives General Meeting’. The title may lack the punch of the simple term ‘congress’ that the Russian revolutionaries used more than a century ago, but the sentiment is the same. London is once again playing host to real revolutionaries.
The defectors’ ambitions are clearer now, and they seem almost feasible. To get information to the North Korean people, to establish a government in exile and finally to establish democracy in North Korea. As they talk, there’s a little name-dropping and it quickly becomes clear that the defectors have managed to make friends in high places, including Lord Alton, the leading expert on North Korean affairs in parliament. ‘We should be helping to prepare these young people to become tomorrow’s leaders in North Korea,’ says Lord Alton, although he stops short of saying that they should be recognised as an official government-in-exile. We should, he believes, continue with our policy of engaging with North Korea and encouraging gradual change.
So the defectors still seem a long way from real recognition, but only a fool would underestimate them. These are, after all, men who’ve escaped across the frozen Yalu river, picking their way over the bodies of those who didn’t make it, still trapped in the ice; they’ve outfoxed the Chinese, who have a policy of sending any defectors straight back, and have made it here to London. It would be naive to underestimate their ambition or ability. Today the regime is weak, and their resolve is strong.
They ask me if I would consider helping them in the future. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘of course.’ If history has taught me anything, it is that you should never underestimate an international revolutionary in London.