Author: Peninsula politics
AS DINERS devour scorching portions of bibimbap from stone bowls, with paintings of South Korea decorating the walls around them, visitors might think they were in Seoul. But this is New Malden, south-west London. More than 10,000 South Koreans have lived in London’s “Koreatown” since an initial wave of immigration in the 1970s. Now, those from the south increasingly find themselves jostling with migrants from elsewhere.
Over the din of sizzling rice, sounds of Mandarin emerge from the restaurant’s kitchen. One of the waitresses is a Chinese-Korean from Liaoning, a Chinese province by the North Korean border. The chef, meanwhile, is from South Hamgyeong, in the north-east of North Korea. She speaks fluent Mandarin at work, as “it’s the only way to communicate with the Chinese-Koreans in my job.”
In the past, the main divide in Koreatown was between old-timers and younger, more liberal recent migrants. One South Korean resident describes New Malden as “more conservative than Seoul”. “Women stay at home, their kids have to do what they are told to do, they have to go to university,” he says, adding that residents need not speak English. Koreatown, which comprises three or four streets off a main drag filled with restaurants, food markets and travel agents, has thus maintained traditional conservative values that have been eroding in Seoul.
Now, however, a bigger divide is opening up, caused by the growing mixture of South, North and Chinese-Koreans in the community. Some 600-800 North Koreans live in Britain, making up what is thought to be the biggest diaspora outside Asia. Many come via China. Other North Koreans come after spending time living in the South. Although Seoul may seem glamorous upon arrival, it is often hard for northerners to fit in. Because they are Korean, they are expected to act Korean. But the culture of the communist North is now so different from that of the freewheeling South that this is easier said than done. Some opt to move further afield, where no one expects them to be like their neighbours.
Tensions occasionally arise in London’s Koreatown. “South and North Koreans try to get along, but there are good and bad people everywhere,” says one North Korean living in New Malden. Another says that, while she was having her first meal at a Korean restaurant in Britain, the South Korean waitress recognised her North Korean accent and suggested that she be given the leftovers, which she would be used to eating in the North.
Matters are further complicated by the growing number of Chinese-Koreans, known as Joseonjok. A big strain on relations between North Koreans and Joseonjok is the asylum system. Many Joseonjok falsely claim to be North Korean, hoping to improve their chances of being granted asylum. North Koreans greatly resent this, on the grounds that it risks genuine North Korean refugees being rejected. In 2013, 30 applications by people claiming to be from North Korea were rejected.
Imported political disputes are another source of friction. Whereas many South Koreans approve of President Moon Jae-in’s engagement with the North, some North Korean exiles see this as siding with the enemy. “Moon Jae-in told the world he was a human-rights lawyer when he visited the White House” last year, says one North Korean in Britain. “But now he has stopped the work of human-rights activists,” banning the sending of leaflets touting the benefits of freedom to the North. As for Donald Trump’s recent meeting with Kim Jong Un, “all hope was lost,” she adds. The future of north-east Asia is being watched closely in south-west London.