King Charles finds his Seoul food in the suburbs
2023/11/09

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King Charles became the "King of Korea Town" - or New Malden as it's otherwise known - on a royal visit on Wednesday.

This unobtrusive London suburb claims to have the biggest concentration of Korean people anywhere in Europe.

The King chatted to crowds crammed outside the Seoul Plaza supermarket, on a high street full of Korean businesses and takeaways.

The royal trip comes ahead of this month's state visit to Britain by South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol.

The King has described his vision of Britain as being a "community of communities".

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And here he seemed to really enjoy visiting the place known as "Korea Town", named after the 20,000 Koreans living around this part of the south-west London Borough of Kingston.

There was K-Pop playing to greet the King when he arrived to meet members of the Korean community gathered inside the town's Methodist church.

This is on a street that, despite the rainy November weather, is a little slice of Seoul food. Adverts in the window are for Korean sports teams, a K-Pop competition and a Korean language church.

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There's a job advert for bus drivers with its own Korean language helpline. Possibly gangway rather than Gangnam Style.

The supermarket is full of the national vegetable dish, called kimchi, and later this month this part of London will be the first in Europe to celebrate Korea's "Kimchi Day."

On such royal trips, it's unmistakable how much the King enjoys meeting the crowds.

Ditching the initial script, he dived into an impromptu walkabout and several more after the official greetings - so much so that his own Bentley was more or less tailing him to scoop him inside at the end.

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It's not all tame stuff either. The crowds were there to cheer him, but there were a couple of placards dotted around - Not My King and Help Gaza were visible - but he goes into the crowd in a way that few politicians would now contemplate.

He was also wearing a Black Poppy Rose badge for the visit, as well as a conventional poppy, remembering black veterans from Caribbean and African communities.

Inside the Cake and Bing Soo cafe, an Earl Grey-flavoured birthday cake was presented to the King in honour of his 75th birthday next week.

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Chatting to a representative from a senior citizens' group, he asked about the age of admittance. When he was told it was 65 years old, he said with a shrug: "I've certainly passed that mark."

There was a more serious chat with some North Koreans, asking them how they had left and was it by crossing the border into China.

Timothy Cho told the King he had escaped that way, and later he talked about how he had initially been deported back from China to North Korea and that he's now campaigning for such escapees to be sent from China to another third country.

He eventually escaped by being deported to the Philippines.

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But why have so many Koreans settled in New Malden?

It depends who you ask. There are claims it dates back to Samsung having offices here once. Or that a South Korean ambassador had a residence here.

Neither seem convincing to some of the locals.

Councillor Elizabeth Park, wearing Korean national dress for the visit, said: "My theory is education - there were very good schools. And it's a safe place."

Another suggestion was that Koreans needed to be near Korean food, which is now in abundance on this rainy high street.

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South Korean ambassador, Yeocheol Yoon, said the Korean "craving for our own food is strong".

Korean culture has been a remarkable export story in recent years, down to the King chatting to young people here about Korean music.

Why has Korean culture caught on so much?

"I've got my own wacky personal interpretation. Koreans can be very emotional and get wild," he says, and he believes that intensity lends itself to creativity.

"It's like Korean food. It's tangy. You get addicted once you have a taste," said the ambassador, who welcomed the King to this small pocket of Korea.

That gift for performance clearly goes right up the chain.

When President Yoon Suk Yeol visited US President Joe Biden, the South Korean president gave a stirring and surprising .

Whether such diplomatic karaoke is likely during his visit to Buckingham Palace remains to be seen.

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