COVID-19 Upends North Korean Defectors in Britain

Jihyun Park, a North Korean defector in London, had heard stories that other defectors in Britain were having a tough time making ends meet as the coronavirus disrupted daily life.She responded by packing up dozens of boxes with rice and spicy beef flavor Korean-style instant noodles bought with her own money and sending them to ease the lives of North Korean families just barely getting by.“This lockdown period is comparable to wartime,” said Park, a human rights activist who was born in North Korea’s east coast port city of Chongjin and arrived in Britain in 2008. “Many North Korean defectors lost their jobs and are staying at home. The lockdown was enforced suddenly and some people couldn’t stock up on food, so I wanted to provide what little help I can.”Jihyun Park sent instant noodles and rice to North Korean defectors in Britain who need support. (Connect: North Korea)Park, a math teacher before defecting in 1998, is the outreach director at Defector students learn everyday English and British culture. (Connect: North Korea)Suburban refugeThe southwest London suburb of New Malden is home to the largest North Korean community outside Asia. About 1,000 North Koreans have resettled here since the late 2000s, drawn by job opportunities in the businesses established by South Koreans who formed a large community in New Malden in the 1960s. The community expanded when Samsung Electronics established its U.K. head office in New Malden in 1980.The majority of North Korean defectors in Britain work as cleaners, movers or taxi drivers, or work gig jobs at restaurants and construction sites. Many of those who are jobless because of the economic impact of COVID-19 do not qualify to receive unemployment benefits.Only about 10% of the North Koreans are employed by large businesses like Korean supermarkets, said Seung Cheol Choi, former president of the Korean Nationality Residents Association, a North Korean defectors group in Britain.“Others don’t have regular jobs, so they can’t receive the government’s coronavirus subsidies. They must be having a hard time compared to before the coronavirus. Nonetheless, I believe the British social security system provides for basic necessities,” he said.Michael Glendinning, founder of Connect: North Korea, thinks being jobless is difficult for the North Korean workers.“Even the most basic needs are not being met — food, housing or whatever — and that’s one of the reasons why we started the fundraising: to be able to provide support,” he said.The UK connectionThere were only 20 North Korean defectors living in Britain in 2007, but ever since, the number has grown exponentially. Some came straight from China, a transit point for almost all North Korean defectors. Others moved to Britain after brief stays in South Korea, which received the first defector in 1948. As of December 2019, Andrew has been teaching a North Korean defector student for the past three years. (Connect: North Korea)Learning EnglishConnect: North Korea is running English learning programs for North Korean defectors to help them integrate into British society. About 20 volunteer English teachers switched to online lessons after the coronavirus lockdown.“We made the coronavirus the subject of our very first online class. I asked my student to briefly let me know what the symptoms of the virus are and what the U.K. government said people should be doing. I wanted to make sure he was aware of the new buzzwords and jargon around the coronavirus, and I also wanted him to stay safe,” said one of the English teachers, a Briton who asked to be identified only by his first name, Andrew.The North Korean student, in his 30s, is waiting for a decision on his asylum application. He has been learning English from Andrew for three years. For him, learning English is a key to a better future.“Wherever you live, English is a second language,” said the North Korean defector, who asked to not be identified. “I’m still young. Even though I can’t speak English well at the moment, I will continue to study hard so that more opportunities will open up for me.”

дата публікації: 17-05-2020




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