Photographer: David Birkin
X is a North Korean defector who has been living in London for the past five years. As a former officer serving in the army of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, he witnessed more than a third of the soldiers he commanded die of starvation.
In 2005, without notifying his family or friends, he decided to swim across the heavily patrolled Tumen River that forms the border with China. After a two-year journey by foot through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand – avoiding capture and deportation on numerous occasions – he boarded a plane to London on fake papers and a forged photograph, and claimed political asylum upon landing.
London's North Korean community critically lacks visibility. Most lie low, and are wary of having their picture taken or doing anything that might attract the attention of the authorities and jeopardise the safety of their loved ones back home. Collective punishment is widespread in North Korea and it is not uncommon for up to three generations of a family to be sent to concentration camps for the transgressions of a single individual. Since arriving in London, X has campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of human rights abuses in his homeland, while managing to ensure his family stays safe.
I invited X to reveal something that, either for personal or political reasons, he had felt unable to disclose previously, and then left him alone in a room facing a camera. When he was ready, he opened the shutter and when finished he closed it, so that the photograph's exposure was determined by the length of time he chose to speak. In the absence of any sound-recording equipment, all the camera captures is a visual trace of this private moment.
by David Birkin, photographer - www.davidbirkin.co.uk