Here in New Malden, local restaurants, cafés and supermarkets offer menus and price tags in English and Hangul. The suburb is nicknamed ‘Little Pyongyang’ after its population of 20,000 Koreans. But for Joong-hwa, a home away from home isn’t what he wants. Despite famine, disease and death, he dreams of returning to his roots in North Korea.
Little Pyongyang is a short documentary by Roxy Rezvany about the life of a former North Korean soldier living in Britain. Recounting his childhood memories, Joong-hwa reveals what it was like to live in one of the most secretive countries in the world. But it turns out that most of the time, life in the DPRK was actually pretty uneventful.
Rezvany’s directorial debut captures North Korean life in a way that seems at odds with the melodrama in the media. ‘We pore over [media portrayals] as if it’s a spectacle for us to gawk on…We just go, “Oh look at them. They’re all just drones, towing the party line for Kim Jong Un”,’ Rezvany said. ‘We forget the humanity there and think only of the ridiculous.’
Recounting scenes from his childhood, Joong-hwa tells anecdotes of victories and disappointments. He remembers playing games with whatever was around and ice skating with a pair of makeshift skates. His memories are relatable. And he hopes that by telling them, he might convince people that North Koreans are complex human beings, not drones that need to be deprogrammed once they escape. ‘You don’t know until you’re in that situation the sort of decisions you have to make,’ he said.
When Joong-hwa reveals the details of his life in North Korea, he sits on a candy pink-coloured set, flanked by flowers and pictures of his family. ‘I wanted the film to have a really special, unique look and feel as a way of doing service to Joong-hwa as an individual, who came forward to tell his story,’ Rezvany explained. The bright and colourful aesthetic of the film certainly softens the harder edges of his past.
After the mid-’80s, famine starved millions of North Koreans including Joong-hwa’s family. His situation was particularly desperate, as his brother suffered a mild disability and needed to be looked after. ‘I agonised over one bowl of cooked rice,’ he remembered. But there was not enough for them both to eat and survive. In the end, the instinct to survive took the decision out of their hands. ‘If I didn’t eat and died, my brother would have died after me as he would have no one to look after him,’ Joon-hwa said.
Since moving to London, Joong-hwa has become an important touchstone for North Korean refugees. He assists those who are struggling to integrate, helping them fill out council tax forms, applications for visas and other bureaucratic tasks. But despite his importance to his local community, he still thinks about what his life might have been if he’d stayed behind in North Korea.
‘I wonder if it was a mistake to come to the UK,’ Joong-hwa admits. Thinking of his three kids, he fears that they will struggle to learn the vocabulary of his native language. He worries that he won’t be able to connect with them deeply through in-depth conversations. ‘It feels like I’m not capable of doing what a parent should do for their children.’
Many immigrant parents want their children to be proud of their cultural heritage, and Joong-hwa is no different. But his challenge is harder than most. He must prove to his kids that his happy childhood memories are just as valid as the version of North Korea reported in the media.
‘As a North Korean, you obviously don’t approve of the human rights abuses,’ Rezvany notes. ‘But that doesn’t mean you want to leave behind the cultural identity and artefacts and things that did make you proud.’
In some respects, Joong-hwa’s life is a typical immigrant story: he came to Britain hoping to create a better life for his family, but yearns of one day returning home. Except for him and thousands of other North Korean refugees, there’s one key difference – he can’t go home.
‘I will only see my family again if change happens fast,’ Joong-hwa said, lower lip trembling, eyes wet with tears. The pace of change frustrates him. But he has no choice but to hope change will happen in his lifetime. And to instil a sense of cultural pride in his kids just in case it doesn’t. ‘I have to encourage my children so that when they grow up, they want to visit their father’s hometown in North Korea,’ he said. ‘Even if I’m not alive to go with them’.
Joong-hwa knows he may never be able to take his kids to the town where he grew up. To see his brothers again, whom he hasn’t seen in 15 years. To sit around the family dinner table, eating Atka mackerel and pollock. But like many in the country, he dreams that Korea’s two halves will one day be reunited. And that he will one day return home.
Follow the link to watch Little Pyongyang on YouTube.