Inside London’s community of North Korean defectors

Eve Watling
Pictures by Catherine Hyland

In the southwest London suburb of New Malden, it’s common to see Korean signage across the high street’s low-rise row of shopfronts. Since the 1980s, much of the UK’s Korean community has made a home in New Malden, and now make up about a third of its total population.

But it isn’t just South Koreans settling in New Malden. It’s also home to most of the UK’s North Korean defectors, which, at over 600 people, is the largest North Korean community in Europe. Arriving as refugees, they have escaped a country that the UN has repeatedly condemned for its corruption, human rights abuses and “appalling” levels of hunger.

New Malden’s North Korean community is fairly recent; in 2007, there were only 20 defectors living in the area. Drawn by the Korean amenities already established by their southern neighbours, North Koreans have built a new life away from Kim Jong-un’s oppressive regime while still honouring the cultural traditions they left behind.

It’s this delicate balance of renewal and remembrance that photographer Catherine Hyland sought out when she began working with New Malden’s North Koreans around three years ago. She began attending church services and K-pop competitions, spending over a year getting to know the community before she took a single photograph.

Hyland was aware that these subjects deserved an especially sensitive approach. “Even after you defect, the psychological and cultural adjustment can be hard due to the extreme conditions people are used to,” she says.

Named The Traces Left Behind, her multi-part series allows her subjects to express themselves through their own visual and cultural language. “The disparity between the media [portrayal of the community] and reality is vast,” Hyland points out. “We hope the project could be a platform for this community to share their stories on their own terms.”

The Traces Left Behind looks at cultural reproduction, from K-pop to cooking, and exploring “how movement and companionship can help resolve trauma,” says Hyland. She has recently finished the project’s first chapter, a short film and photo series in collaboration with the Korean Senior Citizen Society’s dance group and choir.

​Rather than a straightforward documentary-style observation, Hyland created a set inspired by the bright, pastel aesthetic specific to North Korea, inviting the group to dance, sing and share their story with her. The presentation subverts the North Korean government’s own highly staged and controlled photo releases which serve to express the state narrative; in Hyland’s hands, she uses the sets as a site of deliberate collaboration, in which the community can truthfully express their own lived experiences.

The Traces Left Behind from Catherine Hyland on Vimeo.

Despite the colour and joy evident in her work, Hyland’s interviews touch on some painful moments. Lee-Sook Sung, a 77-year-old who participates in the dance troupe, was an early settler in the UK, having arrived in 2009. She told Hyland that three of her sons starved to death in North Korea before she escaped to China with her husband and three remaining children.

Having lost her eyesight and become unable to read, she learns the choir songs with the help of her husband. Despite these hardships, she says the community helps her remain young, as does the healthcare and quality of life she has found in New Malden. “If I had still been in North Korea, by this age I wouldn’t be able to do anything,” she says. “But I have come to such a joyful and wonderful world that I am dancing at this age.”

Donate to The Traces Left Behind, or to The Korean Senior Citizen Society in New Malden

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