A North Korean defector has spoken out about how he escaped from the world’s most secretive state with his infant son strapped to his back and a cyanide pill in his mouth.

New Malden is known for its large South Korean population, but few people know about the 600 or so North Korean defectors who have taken refuge in the borough. Choi Joong-Ha had to leave North Korea with his wife Yun-Ah-Jung and one-year-old son Joon Choi in 2004.

The country had just come out of a devastating famine that killed almost 3.5m people when he made a comment to his brother about how conditions would not change while the Kim dynasty were in charge.

Joong-Ha became so scared that someone would repeat his words and he would be arrested that he made plans to leave.

He had been conditioned into such a state of paranoia that he did not tell his wife about the escape.

Speaking through a translator, Joong-Ha said: “My wife is another person and I didn’t know what she was thinking. I could not trust her, I could not trust anyone. It is the way the regime works, the way it stays in power. You can only trust yourself.

“I was scared that I would be sent to a labour camp for what I said and that would have effectively been a death sentence.”

Joong-Ha told his wife they were going to visit his brother who lived near the Chinese border. When they reached the Tumen River that separates the two countries he revealed the real reason they had come.

“My wife was not pleased and she didn’t want to go. If the authority catches you trying to escape you will be shot or sent to a camp.”

Surrey Comet:

A monument to Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang, North Korea

For 12 years Joong-Ha had been in the North Korean army and would, therefore, have been subjected to the most severe punishment if he had been caught trying to leave.

Because of this he waded across the river with his son strapped to his back and a cyanide pill in his mouth.

He said: “I got to quite a high position in the army and we were constantly shown propaganda about how our country was the best in the world and no one could compare to us.

“If I had been caught they would have singled me out as an example to others who might be planning to do the same thing.

“I would have been arrested, tortured and put in a camp or shot there and then. If the authorities saw us trying to cross it would be better to die in the river.”

Despite the propaganda he had been subjected to, Joong-Ha could see the poverty around him and thought North Korea might not be the country the government made it out to be.

He remembered reading about the UK when at school and was fascinated by the history.

He said: “I read about the Industrial Revolution that had happened hundreds of years ago in Britain and thought it must be a really advanced place.

“Economically it seemed like the most stable country I could get to.”

The trip across the river took a day and when Joong-Ha and his family got into China they had to strip off their clothes and dispose of anything that might identify them as North Korean.

He said: “Just because we had got to China it didn’t mean we were safe. Every day we were fearful of being caught and being deported.

“We were lucky that my wife had family near the border and she and my son could stay with them. They helped us a lot.”

Surrey Comet:

Choi Joong-Ha said conditions would not change while the Kim dynasty were in charge

After four years working as a labourer, Joong-Ha managed to save enough money to pay a broker to take him and his family to the UK.

He said: “My wife was not happy and did not want to go. She liked being with her family in China, but we could not stay because we would always be looking over our shoulder, wondering if we would be caught and sent back.”

When the family first arrived in UK they were placed in Newcastle and struggled to cope with the culture shock and the language barriers. Joong-Ha joked: “There were many days I woke up in Newcastle and thought I’d made a huge mistake.

“I couldn’t speak any English and could not get on with the culture in the town; it was so different from what we were used to.

“I heard there were lots of Koreans in New Malden and we decided to move down there.”

The family have now been living in New Malden for six years and in that time Joong-Ha has established himself as the chairman of the North Korean Residents’ Society.

He said: “I want the North Koreans to interact in society. It is hard sometimes with the language barriers but I think it’s important for people to hear our stories.”

The 600 North Korean residents in New Malden each have a unique story of escape from the most secretive country on the planet.

The European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea has been working with defectors in the UK.

More information about the organisation and other defector stories can be found on its website at eahrnk.org.