Never mind nuclear war, says North Korean defector Joo-il Kim, the reality of famine is bad enough

Joo-il Kim believes the rhetoric is just a distraction

“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.”

* Q&A: North Korean defector Joo-il Kim, what was life like for you at home?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions