A Day Trip to Little Pyongyang

by Ed Hayne, Strategy Director and Alice Callaghan, Account Manager

If you venture a mere 24 minutes from Waterloo on the train, you’ll find a south-west London suburb that looks a little different. That’s because along with a familiar swarm of commuters seeking a more affordable place to live near the capital, this place is home to 10,000 South Koreans and another 1,000 of their Northern counterparts. That’s the highest population of North Koreans outside of Asia. The place in question? New Malden, a.k.a. Little Pyongyang.

Since the Brexit vote, there has been a lot written about the resurgence of British nationalism and distrust of other ‘non-British’ cultures. The goal of our New Malden trip was to listen to the views of local North and South Koreans and hear first-hand how they were finding the Britain of today versus the country they’d experienced when they first arrived.

A less ‘welcoming’ nation? An island on a mission to self-destruct post Brexit? A global embarrassment?

Initially reserved in their responses, by the end of each conversation, we had some fascinating answers to some big questions.

Let’s start with the ‘less welcoming’ accusation…

Not according to those whom we met in New Malden. Yes, they recognised that it’s now harder to seek asylum or get a working visa, but once you’re in, armed with the right attitude, and the right language, the consensus was that life can be very rewarding.

“Everything is good here, why go back to South Korea?”

“I moved to England for my son’s education. I chose New Malden because of the culture and the food. Food matters to me. The ability to go to the supermarket and get kimchee, Korean soup was important!”

Of course, everything is relative to what you’ve been exposed to before, especially for New Malden’s North Korean residents, but it was refreshing to hear of everyday experiences that painted Britain in a far more positive light than the national press might have us believe.

We remain far from perfect hosts, but it would be short sighted to suggest that this is purely a recent development. Distressing stories of stones being thrown at people and their houses in the 1990s were recounted by some North Korean refugees and the administrative nightmare that both Korean nationalities face when they first arrive is an ongoing problem.

“Language was the hardest part. There was a translator, but not for business. It was hard in business.”

These unpleasant experiences for new arrivals aren’t going away, but it has become far too tempting to see the Britain we lived in at the turn of the century, through rose tinted glasses.

Furthermore, the people we spoke to emphasised the importance of integrating into British society to be truly accepted. They had little sympathy for those who didn’t.

“People need to learn the language.”

“Learning English was key.”

“You can’t just blame the government; we have to change too. What’s the point in being unemployed? We have to show everyone we are contributing.”

The South Koreans we spoke to also recognised that they’re not always as hospitable as they could be, with some traditional Korean national tensions remaining.

“They work for us, not the other way around.”

However, there were several references to an increasing number of shared events between Korean groups in New Malden now taking place, perhaps mirroring the thawing of relations back home.

One South Korean even went as far to suggest that:

“They [North Koreans] are our family. We have the same grandfather, same language, it’s a family.”

“I think the people from North Korea are now made to feel more welcome than ever before in New Malden.”

How big a deal is Brexit?

In today’s Brexit obsessed media landscape, the idea of our leaving the EU has become synonymous with the idea of Britain becoming a less welcoming nation. We wanted to understand just how important the implications of the Brexit vote was to the Korean migrants already living in New Malden. To our surprise, rather than becoming a hot topic of conversation, there was a feeling of general indifference. Put simply, it wasn’t a major news story to any of them. In fact, regardless of Korean nationality, most felt that the UK press was far too focused on Brexit, refugees from other countries and the supposed nuclear threat from Kim Jong-un. Almost all of them felt that there were more important issues to address, such as the plight of the North Korean people back home.

“When talking about North Korea, they never mention the people. There’s a media obsession with Syrian refugees. Why isn’t there more about the North Koreans living in extreme poverty? They still exist.”

“The people [of North Korea] need a voice, that’s so much more important than sanctions.”

The North Koreans also didn’t see Brexit as a bad thing necessarily. In fact, it was first time extreme language was used.

“The EU feels like an economic dictatorship.”

“I don’t like the idea of someone ruling for others.”

A South Korean mechanic and estate agent were equally disengaged with the Brexit debate, explaining that Europe wasn’t the reason they came to Britain and leaving the EU certainly wasn’t keeping them awake at night.

Have we become a global embarrassment?

The most enjoyable conversations throughout the day were around all the British quirks that many of us take for granted. Whilst New Malden is full of Korean businesses, the people were just as passionate about eating fish, chips and mushy peas on a Friday, whilst watching Phil Mitchell and Ian Beale comes to blows in the Queen Vic.

“My favourite Eastenders character was Abi Branning. I can’t believe they killed her off!”

So yes, maybe we are a global embarrassment, but it’s our primitive British take-away cuisine and ridiculous soap operas that are to blame, not the political issues that make front page news.

In fact, it was these British rituals and the open-mindedness of the British public that made New Malden feel like a place Koreans could happily call home.

“I like that we have a female in charge.”

“It was amazing to see newspaper shops and different skin colours when I arrived at the English airport.”

Great Britain?

A day in New Malden with a few Korean people will of course only reveal so much, but it certainly reminded us why we should still be proud to be living in Britain. At the risk of sounding saccharine, it’s easy to forget the incredible opportunities that are afforded to us, amongst the sea of negative headlines. The Koreans we spoke with were certainly unequivocal in their praise of our small island.

“If I could live anywhere in the world it would still be England.”

“I’ve grown to love the rain. Not every day is sunshine. The weather reflects life.”

Indeed, it was the attitude of those we spoke with that absolutely captured the best of what Britain today is all about. Both the North and South Koreans we met were proud of their roots, but equally they’d gone out their way to embrace and enhance life in New Malden. They welcomed us with open arms and with a contagiously positive attitude. If we all adopted a similar outlook, then maybe we’d realise that Britain isn’t such a bad place to live after all.

Also, did you know….

1. North Korean people actually do vote:

They dress up in their best clothing and bow in front of an image of Kim Jong-Il upon arrival. An armed guard watches from behind as they vote for the only option on the ballot paper.

2. Only North Korean men are allowed to smoke:

They were genuinely shocked to see women smoking in the UK when they first arrived.

3. There’s definitely some love for Donald:

The Koreans we spoke to were impressed by his unorthodox approach to dealing with Kim Jong-un and his empathy with the North Korean people.