Home Comforts: North Korean Defectors Celebrate Belonging in New Malden, London

Home Comforts: North Korean Defectors Celebrate Belonging in New Malden, London

In the face of displacement, North Korean defectors find hope on foreign shores, build a sense of collective identity and celebrate belonging in New Malden, London.

The article appears in Volume 32: Homegrown.

photographer Catherine Hyland, our daily rituals and
gestures are what unite us as humans. “These small traces of our
identity connect us to tradition, family and heritage,” she says.
“They enrich our lives and provide comfort.”

For the past two years, Hyland has got to know some of New
Malden’s North Korean community – one of the largest of its kind in
Europe. In the hope of building a new life away from their home
country’s regime, more than 600 defectors have settled in this
south-west London suburb, where a larger, already-established
population of South Koreans had paved the way for restaurants
serving bibimbap and bingsoo, kimchi and Korean barbecue.

“Defectors live complicated lives,” Hyland explains, “traversing
the gulf between then and now. Even after you defect, the
psychological and cultural adjustment can be hard.”

When many in the west think of North Korea, we imagine a
secretive, totalitarian state, where propaganda, political pressure
and food insecurity are the norms. Much of our media coverage
portrays the country as a place where free will is quashed,
liberties are curtailed and human-rights abuses are widespread.
Those long-suffering inhabitants who make the decision to defect
are traumatised.

Yet in her ongoing series, The Traces Left Behind, Hyland paints
a more uplifting and optimistic picture, challenging the culturally
starved perception of scarred North Korean defectors. Having shared
many meals, stories and rituals – dances, choir recitals, K-pop
events – with members of the New Malden community, she realised
that abandoning the regime was in no way the same as forgetting
home and heritage.

“Your birthplace… it’s a special place,” says North Korean
Surl Lee, who continues to enjoy the dishes that remind him of
home, despite still having nightmares about the time he was
imprisoned there. “I suffered so much in the prison. Even now it
comes up in my dreams. You know, when you wake up with a

In New Malden, he earns his living as a builder, though
ultimately he aspires to be an artist – he already has a small
studio in town. “Doing what I want to do is, shall I say, a fight
to wholly live my existence,” he explains. “It’s a battle, a reason
for me to live.”

Hope’s triumph over suffering is seen, too, in the story of
Lee-Sook Sung, who escaped North Korea during the economic crisis
and famine in 1999, but not before three of her sons starved to
death. While living in hiding in China, her eyesight deteriorated.
Unable to seek the necessary treatment, she went blind

Today, her commitment to enjoying life is remarkable. “I live
happily,” she says. “I enjoy all sorts of arts, singing, playing
janggu [a Korean drum].” Her blindness means she can’t read music,
but her husband helps by playing the songs on the computer until
she memorises them.

Yet one of the biggest lifelines for Lee-Sook has been the
Korean Senior Citizens Society – part charity shop, part education
centre and 100-per-cent welcoming to both North and South Koreans.
It’s here that elderly people share hot meals and that Hyland
formed a close bond with Hyongsoo Yim, a South Korean chef who
teaches cookery classes to the members. “We enjoy many activities
such as cooking, dancing and singing,” he says.

Hyongsoo has been handmaking tofu for more than a decade now,
having started when his children were young. It’s a long process,
he says, so he began preparing it in batches. When he made too
much, he’d give it away – that was until someone turned up on his
doorstep and said: “I heard you’re selling delicious tofu, just
like our grandmothers used to make.” Hyongsoo thought to himself:
“Well, I’m not selling it now, but I could start.”

What we eat is flavoured by our identity, whether it’s in shifting tastes or the nostalgic dishes that transport and comfort us.

Hyongsoo Yim

Today, Hyongsoo’s keen to pass his culinary skills on to his
son, an aspiring chef. The only trouble is, his British-born son
would rather make British dishes. “It’s an intergenerational
conflict,” Hyongsoo smiles.

What we eat is flavoured by our identity, whether it’s in
shifting tastes or the nostalgic dishes that transport and comfort
us. Hyland’s series speaks to the unifying power of food, hope and
community in times of transition and displacement. Her images have
an almost cinematic quality, yet feel intimate too. Inviting us
into people’s homes filled with the trinkets of their lives, they
show us that beauty lies as much in traditional acts of ceremony as
in everyday domestic rituals. We get a taste of how these moments
bind the community, not just to each other but to their past and
their changing present too.

All too often, New Malden’s North Koreans are seen as “the
other”, when in fact their ability to thrive in the face of
adversity, find hope on foreign shores and build a sense of
collective identity – whether through food, craft, music or any
other ritual – is something to which we can all aspire. Far from
pitying them, perhaps we should ask: what can we learn from

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