An Exclusive Interview With LiNK’s Field Manager

June 22, 2020

Over 1,200 North Korean refugees have reached freedom through our secret rescue routes. Michael Kim* is LiNK’s Field Manager and has overseen dozens of rescue missions, helping hundreds of these refugees safely reach freedom. Here is an exclusive interview with Michael, only for Liberty Donors like you! *Name changed for security reasons

Why did you want to work on the North Korean issue? 

Michael: I went to university in South Korea and there I met North Koreans for the first time. I became really good friends with them without knowing they were from North Korea. As we grew closer, I grew more aware and informed. I also studied Political Science and International Relations, so I wanted to be more involved in the North Korean issue..

After college I went to serve in the South Korean military. The mandatory military service is a constant reminder of the “other” Korea – a Korea where people have drastically different living standards. Basically everything you do in the military is preparing for a potential war with North Korea. They were seen as “the enemy.” But I had friends who were from North Korea. I realized I should do something to change the situation on the Korean peninsula.

What made you want to work in the field?

Michael: I planned to go to graduate school but then a position in the field opened. I realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a really meaningful role. I ultimately decided to apply because I trusted LiNK and the work. It was a special opportunity because I would get to meet North Korean refugees during the most vulnerable state of their journeys and represent LiNK and the supporters who care about them. 

What is the hardest part of your job?

Michael: It’s hands down the isolation. For security reasons, we can’t be open about our work. In Southeast Asia, we meet people but can’t reveal why we’re there or what we do. We have to come up with cover stories and when people ask too many questions, we shut them down. “Ah it’s just work. It’s boring. You don’t want to know.” It makes it hard to build meaningful connections outside of work. 

Sometimes it takes a toll. Because there are times you do want to share your life with people. But this is why the field team is so close. Everyone shares everything so it’s like a family. 

What is your favorite part of the job?

Michael: Meeting our North Korean friends. When we meet, we tell them, “We’re honored to meet you.” And we mean it. We’re thankful and thrilled they made it this far and had the courage to seek freedom.

When you meet North Korean refugees in the field, what do they need the most? 

Michael: When we meet them in person for the first time, they’re physically and mentally exhausted because of the long and dangerous journey they just went through. The fact that they made it to Southeast Asia is such a feat.

We focus on three things. 

First, we want to support them physically and mentally. We make sure they get rest and create a safe space for them to recuperate.Even just meeting us gives the North Korean refugees a sense of relief. Throughout their journeys, they get directions over the phone or through people to go to pick up spots. So when they reach the final destination and hear the South Korean accent for the first time, it’s like a sign of freedom. They’ve only heard the accent in South Korean movies and dramas.Many of them have not been able to speak their native language freely since they left North Korea so they can finally relax and speak freely. As they share their journeys with us, we build personal relationships with them and it gives them so much encouragement and support.

Second, we do a quality control check. We ask them if anyone on their journey demanded money from them or treated them without dignity or respect. Because of our donor’s generous support refugees do not have to pay to be rescued by LiNK and we want to ensure refugees were not asked to pay by anyone on their route. 

Lastly, we give them information. We let them know what to expect during the resettlement process and answer their questions. In some cases, refugees don’t know where they’re going because they’re trying to reunite with family members. We try to fill in the blanks and help them gain a fuller picture of what’s next.

Cake ceremony celebrating the newfound freedom of North Korean refugees

What are some questions you get from North Korean refugees?

Michael: If there’s a refugee who just left North Korea, they might ask really random questions. Everything is so new to them. They ask about the traffic lights or the names of trees in Southeast Asia. Many of them want to learn how to speak in a South Korean accent. 

They also ask really pragmatic questions like, “What should I do in South Korea to make money so that I can bring my children out of North Korea?” This is a really common question.

One question someone asked was, “Can I travel abroad? And how long can I do that before the government wants me back in the country?” We explain to them that as long as they have a visa to the country they’re going, the South Korean government doesn’t care how long they’re gone!

What are surprising things you hear from North Korean refugees about North Korea?

Michael: The living conditions in North Korea are so bad. It shouldn’t surprise us anymore but every time you hear about it, it’s not easy. For example, they tell us that they were working for the government but were basically forced into slave labor. They’re doing this hard labor but they’re not getting paid by the government. In order to survive, they have to do something on the side. 

Another grim reality is military life. North Korean men have to serve 10 years in the military and it’s not like life is easy there. People have said that they defected because they think about their little boys' futures. They know that once their son turns 18, he has to go to the military. By the time he returns, he’ll be 30. And they will miss out on all their time together. 

What do most North Korean refugees want to do once they reach freedom?

Michael: It depends. Parents just want a better future for their children. Most people really want to learn. They’re hungry for knowledge. They want to learn how things are outside of North Korea and in the world. When we ask them what they want to do, most will tell you that “I don't know enough to know what I want. I just want to go there and see what options I have.”

What field experience has stayed with you?

Michael: Refugees don’t fully grasp the idea of having donors supporting the North Korean people unconditionally. They end up asking, “What do they really get out of this? Why are they doing this? Is this the government?” It’s really hard to understand that individuals on the other side of the world care enough to support them. 

But occasionally, we have people who fully understand and they feel so moved and inspired that they in turn want to participate in this movement. And that is really powerful. Seeing them go from a position of getting help to wanting to do something is always powerful to witness. It’s one thing to be grateful, but it’s another to say, “Now it’s my turn. Once I get to South Korea, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to find ways to contribute.” They tell us that our work has opened their minds and they want to help. 

Is there anything you want to say to our donors?

Michael: We can solely focus on what is best for the North Korean refugees only because we have so many generous people who support what we’re doing in the field. We do our best to be good stewards, but the fact that we can just focus on our work and what we can do better instead of worrying about funding is liberating. Because we’re in the field, we don’t really get to meet donors, but everything that we do - it reminds us that it’s only possible because of our donors and their support.  We feel the support and we are so grateful!

Thanks to your monthly gift, Michael and his team are able to help rescue North Korean refugees at a moment’s notice. We’re so thankful for your continued support! Thank you for standing alongside the North Korean people!

A North Korean Defector’s Nine Year Journey to Freedom | Eunju’s Story

September 19, 2023

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.

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