“Although my body is in England, I still have nightmares about North Korea,” says Joo-il Kim. “About being chased by the army and executed in public, about my family being captured and put in political prison camps.”
Having swum across a river on a dark night to escape a nation that is itself a giant prison camp, the former North Korean army captain turned democracy activist is seeking to rebuild his life somewhere notably quieter – suburban Surrey.
Mr Kim, now 40, defected from the pariah nation across the Chinese border in 2005, and arrived in the UK to claim asylum in 2007 after struggling to find freedom in Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand. Like his wife, who he met in Britain, he is one of 603 North Korean refugees registered as living here by the UNHCR.
As the director of the North Korean Residents Society, he knows as many as 500 of them personally – and says it would be a wonder if any of them were immune from the kind of troubled sleep he experiences, especially in the past few weeks.
Since the Communist state burst back into global headlines with its dictator Kim Jong-un’s threats to use his nuclear weapons on his southern neighbour and even the continental United States, nobody can have been more acutely interested than Mr Kim.
Today is the 101st anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, Kim il-Sung, and the totalitarian state is expected to test launch a new medium-range missile by way of celebration. Should this go ahead, it is likely to be reported on Mr Kim’s Korean-language news website, ifreenk.com, produced from his small office next to a Korean food store on an industrial estate in New Malden.
Below posters celebrating the death of late President Kim Jong-il and underlining the suffering of his people back home, amid the noisy bleeps of trucks reversing into the yard outside, Mr Kim publishes words that he hopes will make a difference.
Ordinary North Koreans cannot read his website, but he wants to begin printing a newspaper to enlighten them of their plight and inform them about the world outside. He says the papers could be smuggled in or tied to balloons that would drift across the border.
While he agrees that the current stand-off is more serious than previous events, he remains confident there will not be conflict. “This current regime does not want a war,” he tells me through a translator. “The people don’t have anything, so they don’t have anything to lose if they went to war – but the regime, they have wealth.” Living in luxury, he says, the leaders will not want to risk what they have.
After he escaped a closed and impoverished society, one imagines his greatest surprises in the outside world would have been at technology. Instead, it was the uneaten fruit he found in Chinese forests while running away that amazed him most. “There were apples just dangling in the trees, falling on the ground. In North Korea, even the smallest apple will be eaten because the people are starving. But China had abundant food,” he says.
Starvation and hunger is a topic he returns to several times, and with good reason. The death of his four-year-old niece from malnutrition, after he had already seen many others dying in an economy wrecked by the regime’s agricultural policies, convinced him to defect. The world might be concerned by the threat of nuclear war, but Mr Kim believes the dictatorship is using this to distract the international community and its own people from the problems they face.
Quietly spoken and 5ft 6in tall, it is hard to imagine Mr Kim in a military uniform, but it was while travelling around North Korea in the armed forces that he realised the extent of the despair and suffering around the country.
“Once, at Kowon station, I saw the bodies of dead people who had died of hunger, and because there were too many of them, they left the corpses at the waiting room of the station for one week and didn’t want to take them away,” he says.
Should film crews ever make it into North Korea, television reports showing the extent of the devastation will inevitably have to warn viewers about distressing images. In their absence, let us warn you instead about distressing words.
Mr Kim continues: “I saw female soldiers dying of malnutrition and starvation. When a woman dies of hunger, her breasts shrink and flatten, her hair falls out, and discharges and water are secreted from all the holes in the face – the eyes, nose, ears. So, seeing people dying of hunger was the worst thing I saw.”