Empowering North Korean Refugees | An Overview of LiNK’s Programs
North Korean people live in the most authoritarian and closed country in the world, deprived of their basic human rights and potential. For decades, they’ve faced a brutal dictatorship, systematic oppression, and enforced poverty. Despite the circumstances, North Koreans are striving towards freedom from both inside and outside of the country, creating irreversible change.
Since its founding in 2004, Liberty in North Korea has not wavered in its vision- a day when every North Korean man, woman, and child can live free and full lives. Yet during that time, our approach has shifted, transformed, and evolved. With an issue as complex as North Korea and as fundamental as human rights, we needed a holistic set of programs to enact change at multiple levels.
Refugee rescues are just the beginning. Over the years, we’ve expanded our approach and developed new ways to support and build the capacity of North Korean people. Here’s how we’re working together to accelerate change.
Rescue and Resettlement Support
The journey to freedom is not an easy one, but it begins with a choice. A choice to hope, to live, and sometimes to leave. Over the last decade, more than 1,300 North Korean refugees and their children have made this difficult decision and reached freedom through LiNK’s networks.
LiNK provides critical humanitarian assistance to North Korean refugees in China, helping them escape through a “modern day underground railroad.” It’s a dangerous 3,000 mile journey from the border of North Korea to Southeast Asia, from where they can safely resettle in South Korea or the U.S. The route is dotted with security checkpoints, state-of-the-art surveillance, and the constant risk of being forcibly sent back. The Chinese government refuses to recognize North Koreans as refugees, instead cooperating with the North Korean regime. If caught, North Korean refugees are forcibly returned to North Korea, where they may face severe punishment, imprisonment, torture, and even execution.
Helping North Koreans escape has only become more challenging since the start of the pandemic. Extreme border lockdowns and unprecedented restrictions made the journey nearly impossible and left many vulnerable refugees stuck in hiding, at even greater risk of exploitation. But the North Korean people didn’t give up, and neither did we. Our field team worked tirelessly to establish new routes and adapt to the circumstances on the ground, making rescues a reality again in late 2022. Despite restarting rescues, the significant increase in costs have depleted our rescue funds, leaving many North Korean refugees waiting, once again, for an opportunity to escape.
We were also able to work with the U.S. Government to help unique and exceptional cases of North Koreans in third countries come to the United States utilizing a process known as “Humanitarian Parole” (HP). HP cases do not arrive in the U.S. with refugee status. As a result, LiNK provides full sponsorship and support in housing, medical, and financial assistance; interpretation and translation services; and coordinating legal needs to receive status.
Though nothing short of a herculean effort, reaching freedom is just the beginning. And navigating this newfound autonomy comes with unique challenges in both the U.S. and South Korea. Resettled North Koreans face enormous social, cultural and technological chasms that must be bridged in a short period of time. Many describe the transition like stepping out of a time machine, fifty years into the future.
LiNK’s resettlement program helps support the success of North Korean refugees. Whether this means financial assistance, making home visits, connecting people to resources and services, hosting workshops, or organizing community gatherings, we work together to develop self efficacy for a sustainable future.
From rescue to resettlement, LiNK walks with North Korean refugees into their new lives. A world of endless possibilities awaits, and we’re excited to see them reach their full potential and achieve their dreams.
Empowering Agents of Change
Emerging from one of the most hostile regimes in the world, North Korean defectors have demonstrated strength and resilience that most of us can not even imagine. They’ve asserted themselves as their people’s greatest hope. One of our biggest opportunities is to go beyond just resettlement support and invest in developing the capacity of North Koreans as agents of change.
A consistently reported challenge we hear from North Koreans is English language ability. It’s not only an essential skill for access to educational and career opportunities–it’s a tool to promote self-efficacy and narrative agency. In response to this need, we launched the LiNK English Language program (LELP) in South Korea. As of Fall 2022, over 200 North Korean students have participated in this program and were matched 1:1 with volunteer tutors. They emerged with the confidence and communication skills to advocate for themselves and others, and new connections that will last a lifetime.
"Before taking the program, I always felt reluctant to respond whenever foreigners came and asked for directions. Now I am not afraid of speaking in English anymore! I was able to improve and make more complete sentences by practicing grammar lessons. As LiNK’s vision is to help the North Korean people achieve freedom, LELP helped me achieve freedom in my English!"
– Minjeong, LELP 2021 participant
For North Koreans who are interested in growing as activists through their studies and extracurricular activities, LiNK offers the Changemakers Scholarship. Recipients are provided with six months of financial support to increase their capacity for advocacy work. Before participating in the program, only 9.6% of participants felt financially stable. After the program, 58% felt financially stable, their part-time job hours decreased by 7 hours a week on average, and 45% of participants saw an increase in their GPA.
On the U.S. side, many North Korean refugees have a difficult time finding professional development opportunities and breaking into the industries that interest them. Through our Mentorship Program, we connect them with mentors who can provide guidance on everything from resume building and interview strategies to financial management, investing, and counseling.
By developing programs like this, we’re empowering North Koreans with the confidence and capacity to navigate the world and be an agent of change. They’re educating audiences about North Korea and mobilizing Allies (like you!) around the world. They’re sending money and information back to their families in North Korea, transforming their country from the bottom up. Most importantly, they’re proving the potential of the 25 million people inside North Korea still striving towards freedom and a better future.
Accelerating Change in North Korea
A crucial way the North Korean government maintains control is by preventing the people from accessing outside information and media, instead bombarding them with propaganda. Despite this, North Korean people have found ways to access foreign information through smuggled devices and the proliferation of grassroots market activity.
Foreign media can have a powerful influence on how North Koreans perceive the outside world. Consuming smuggled movies, television shows, and music is not just entertaining–it’s educational. A screen can become someone’s window to the world. Through it, they see what it means to live in freedom and can begin to call their own reality into question.
"As more and more people gradually become informed about the reality of their living conditions, the North Korean government will either have to change and adapt in positive ways for its citizens, or to face the consequences of their escalating dissatisfaction. Much more needs to be done to increase the flows of information into North Korea.”
– Thae Yong-ho, Ex-North Korean Diplomat
North Korean defectors consistently say that increasing people’s access to outside information is one of the most effective ways to accelerate change inside the country. LiNK Labs is our space to innovate new ideas that empower North Korean people with information and technology from the outside world.
While much of this work must remain highly confidential to be effective, some key strategies include:
- Collaborating with external partners, including recently arrived defectors for the latest intel on the information landscape in North Korea
- Creating and curating content tailored for North Koreans inside the country
- Localizing existing technologies for safer distribution and consumption of information
With ongoing pandemic-related border closures and restrictions on movement, the information landscape in North Korea has become even more challenging in recent years. The regime has increased the severity of crackdowns and punishment for consuming and sharing foreign media, including credible reports of executions. This shows not just where the regime’s priorities lie, but that these social changes are a real threat to the regime’s control in the long term.
Changing the Narrative on North Korea
While dictators and nuclear missiles command headlines about North Korea, they erase the real heart of the country– its people. This is what the regime wants, to control the narrative both domestically and internationally. So when North Korean defectors share their authentic stories and perspectives, it’s a powerful act of defiance and a crucial way to change the narrative on North Korea. LiNK amplifies North Korean voices through online media, documentaries, and events, and empowers North Korean people to take authorship over their own stories.
LiNK’s Advocacy Fellows program supports and develops the next generation of North Korean leaders, storytellers, and advocates. We believe they will be the ones to create a new vision for North Korea and spearhead that change. Fellows participate in workshops to improve their knowledge on the issue, English language, public speaking, and storytelling skills before traveling across the United States. They speak at churches, community centers, universities, and Fortune 500 companies, and also brief key policy makers and stakeholders. Audiences have included the United Nations, State Department, The White House, National Security Council, the intelligence community, and embassies and think-tanks. Ultimately, Fellows are working to bring a greater focus to the North Korean people and human rights issues rather than just politics.
75% of people who attended an Advocacy Fellows event said it was their first time meeting a North Korean person, and 81% said their perspective on North Korea had been forever changed.
Young South Koreans also have massive potential to be a greater force for progress. Despite sharing a border and heritage with North Korea, the general public in South Korea has become increasingly disengaged from the issue. For decades, the narrative has been centered on politics and the threat of war, and this has contributed to creating an unwelcome environment for many North Korean refugees resettling in South Korea. We’re working to humanize people’s perspective of North Korea and raise a new generation of South Korean activists through our Co-Creators Program.
Each year, Co-Creators brings together North and South Korean students to work on collaborative advocacy projects, tapping into their potential as changemakers and activists redefining North Korea for their generation. They pitch ideas, train with us to improve writing and storytelling skills, and then execute their concept in the public sphere. In 2022, Co-Creators organized a Jangmadang (North Korean market) experience where visitors could learn more about the issue through interactive booths. They reached a total of 242,423 participants both online and in-person over the course of three days.
We believe it will be this new generation of young North and South Korean activists who will influence government policy and public attitudes towards North Korea, and will be crucial in shaping the country’s future when North Korea is finally free.
All around the world, we’re mobilizing a movement of support for the North Korean people. Our goal is to rally 25 million Allies – one Ally for every person in North Korea – who will help us inspire this generation, advocate for change, and stand with the North Korean people. Helping us to achieve this are LiNK Teams, student and community groups across the globe that are committed to seeing the North Korean people achieve their liberty in our lifetime.
Up until now, the scale of humanity’s response to this issue has not matched the scale of the challenge and oppression that the North Korean people face. By changing the narrative on North Korea, we believe that we can change the way that people, institutions, and governments respond to this challenge, and provide the support and resources the North Korean people deserve in order to determine their own future.
A Story of Human Triumph
From helping North Koreans in their escape to empowering a new generation of changemakers, our work is only possible because of the Liberty Community - monthly donors who enable us to develop and sustain these life-changing programs. Because of this community, we can rise to new challenges and sustainably develop long-term solutions.
To ensure that the story of North Korea is one of human triumph, freedom, and the fulfilled potential of 25 million North Korean people!
A North Korean Defector’s Nine Year Journey to Freedom | Eunju’s Story
I didn’t know I was hungry until I was eight years old. Growing up, I had no concept of whether my hometown was wealthy or poor. Then when the great famine struck in the mid-90s, more people died in our city than anywhere else in the country.
That’s when I realized “Oh, this is the most difficult place to live in North Korea.”
I was born in the city of Eundok, North Hamgyong Province. Before that it was called Aoji, a destitute place infamous for its coal mines, where South Korean prisoners of war were sent to work.
In the middle of a long famine, people lose all sense of humanity. You couldn’t survive without dirtying your hands. My father was a kindhearted person, the type that was unable to hurt anyone. But towards the end, hunger drove him to steal from our own house.
On my first day of middle school, I couldn’t find my new backpack anywhere. It turns out that my dad had taken it to the Jangmadang, traded it for food, and eaten it by himself. In the end, he still died from starvation, and my mom, my sister, and I were left to fend for ourselves.
We heard that if we went to China, we could eat all the candy we wanted. With that one piece of information, my mom said she’d rather get shot crossing the Tumen river than starve in North Korea.
It was mid-February in 1999, during the bitter cold winter. The water was frozen solid and stretched over 100 meters across. My mom went first, followed by my sister, and I was in the very back. Maybe it was because I was anxious, but my shoes felt so slippery and I kept falling over as they went farther and farther ahead. We heard that soldiers would shoot anyone who tried to cross the river. But this was our only chance at survival.
My mind was racing, “What if I’m left behind and get caught?” My mom and sister probably feared the same thing.
We encountered a tributary that wasn’t frozen all the way, so my mom waited and had me go first because I was the lightest. A few steps in, the ice broke and I fell into the piercing cold water. None of us knew how to swim. At that moment, I really thought it was the end. But then my feet hit the ground. We had made it to the other side.
Not long after we had crossed into China, a Korean-speaking woman came up to us. She invited us to her house and gave us over a dozen boiled eggs, more food than we had seen in years. In North Korea, when my sister and I had a field trip for school, my mom would cut one boiled egg and give each of us half in our lunch box. To have this much at once was a true luxury. For the first time in a long while, we dared to have some hope.
But then my mom was sold off to a Chinese man. The fortunate thing was that even though my sister and I were 16 and 14 years old, we were so short that people asked if we were 7 or 8. They couldn’t sell us separately, so we were sent together with our mom.
We had been sold for 2000 yuan. When we wanted to leave, the man told us to pay him back. We worked in his house and on his farm but of course we never saw a penny. For three years, we lived in confinement, and my little brother was born.
On a quiet night before my brother was even a year old, Chinese police came to the house in the dark, knocked on the door, and arrested us.
When North Koreans get caught, sometimes they’ll roll up their money and eat it or hide it, but we didn’t have anything. We were taken back across the border with just our clothes. It’s well known that there’s a physical exam to look for hidden money. In a way, you shouldn’t even feel a basic sense of shame as a woman and as a human being. If you cry or plead for mercy, you’ll get beaten up. You cannot question them at all.
With so many people in North Korea dying of starvation, names were removed from the family register after three years without any news. We had already been declared dead. There were two minors and an adult, but our identities couldn’t be confirmed. At the time they couldn’t keep minors in prison without a ruling from the court, so we were entrusted to another person from our hometown. No one wanted extra mouths to feed, so he just let us go.
We went straight to the Tumen river and in 2002, we escaped again.
I had enough food when I was in China. Even dogs and pigs ate rice and corn. But we lived looking over our shoulders, in constant fear of the police.
When we heard about life in South Korea, where our safety and identities would be guaranteed, we decided to defect once more. We were introduced to a broker, gave them some cash upfront, and traveled through Mongolia and the Gobi Desert.
On September 1st, 2006, I arrived at Incheon airport with my mom. My sister joined us in South Korea in 2008. Nine years after first crossing the Tumen River, we were finally together in freedom.
When I was in China, my only wish was that my mom, sister, and I could sleep together, eat together, and come home from work together. I dreamed that someday we could go to the supermarket and get a whole cart full of things to share. After coming to South Korea, we achieved not only that, but everything we’ve ever wanted.
I co-authored a book about my journey, A Thousand Miles to Freedom, with a foreign journalist named Sebastien Falletti. He interviewed several North Koreans, and I agreed to share my story with him out of a sense of duty. I never thought he’d choose me.
Compared to North Korean defectors who live special lives, I don’t actually dream of being a human rights activist. There are times when I don’t want to share anymore and I feel like I have to repeat myself.
But then I think about my best friend in North Korea. Her name is Sunhwa and I don’t think she’s here yet. I imagine that she would want to live like me — to attend college, pave her own way, and explore the vast world we live in. But she is still stuck in the darkness. Until Sunhwa can live a life of freedom, I feel a sense of responsibility to continue to share.
When I think of North Korea, the dark image of my hometown floods my memories. But I would still like to go back just once and visit my dad’s grave. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that he was also a victim of the North Korean regime. I have hope that in this lifetime, North Korea will open up. I’ll return with my mom and my sister, and together we’ll visit my dad’s resting place and prepare a huge meal for him.
For North Koreans to share their stories with audiences around the world, retelling and reliving some of the most harrowing experiences, is an act of exceptional courage. They’re working towards the day when others no longer have to go through the same painful experiences.
You can help rescue more North Korean refugees and support them as they begin their new lives in freedom.