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LiNK English Language Program: Meet the Students of Fall 2021

April 5, 2022

A consistently reported challenge we hear from North Korean defectors is English language ability, which is critical for both educational and career opportunities in South Korea. To address this need, we launched the LiNK English Language Program (LiNKglish)! Our North Korean friends have so much potential, and through capacity-building programs, they’re equipped and empowered to achieve their goals.

After a pilot Summer 2021 semester, we’re excited to share that our Fall 2021 semester served 49 North Korean students and 50 “English buddy” volunteers! Meet Hyang Lee and Jung Ok Choi, two of last semester’s students.

Hyang Lee

Can you briefly introduce yourself?

Hello, my name is Hyang Lee. I’m 26 years old and I’m majoring in business management. I just completed the program but because my English grades were low, I have not yet graduated.

I participated in LiNKglish for both summer and fall semesters. Through the program, I participated in several speech contests and received positive feedback every time, which gave me a lot of confidence. I still keep in touch with my buddy, communicating in English, and am working to complete my studies!

What were some of the most memorable moments in LiNKglish?

This semester, I was able to continue studying with the same English buddy that I had in the summer, Stephanie. I was really happy it worked out! I already knew what kind of person she was, and I felt very comfortable practicing English with her.

The best part was when I taught Stephanie how to read Korean. I would read out loud in English, and she’d read the Korean translation out loud. It made me feel quite proud of myself, that I was able to help someone and also learn English. Two-birds-one-stone, right? That was the most memorable moment for me.

Has communicating with your English buddy changed your perspective on foreigners?

Hmm… not necessarily. What I realized was that I really like America, but my buddy really loves Korea. It made me think, “maybe it’s because our cultures are so different, we like each other’s.”

When we chat about our everyday life, we often talk about food. We ask each other what we had for lunch, what types of food we’ve been eating, what famous restaurants we’ve visited. I told her that I felt like things were a lot saltier in the US, and she agreed. It was fun to ask questions and connect over both our similar experiences and differences.

What was your favorite meeting during LiNKglish?

I think it was our offline activity, the hiking day! It was our first time meeting in-person and I couldn’t sleep for 3 days prior, because I was so excited. Even though it was hard hiking up the mountain, I found myself speaking with the other students and volunteers the entire time. It was amazing. And when we got to the top, and looked down the mountain with everyone… it felt really great to be finally out and about.

Do you think your self-confidence has increased through LiNKglish?

For sure! I used to be afraid of communicating with foreigners, but now I’m confident I could talk to anyone in English. One time, I went to a clothing store and there was a foreigner trying to purchase an item. The store clerk didn’t speak English so I stepped in to help. It made me so happy that I was able to learn a language and help someone with it.

I actually got married last December. My husband and I plan to go overseas for missions in 7-8 years. I will have to use English so much more when I go overseas. I want to study hard and communicate in English as much as possible now, so that it will be easier for me when I go and do mission work.

Jung Ok Choi

Can you briefly introduce yourself?

Hello! I’m Jung Ok Choi from North Korea. I graduated from a four-year nursing college and I’m currently working as a nurse in a general hospital. I’ve been a nurse for the past 8 years, and my goal is to move to the US. I received the US nursing certification 7 years ago, and now I’m studying hard to pass the IELTS test.

Another reason I’m studying English is to be vocal and share my experience with others, for the sake of my family I left behind and for the North Korean people. I want to grow in my expertise, and hope to work with people all over the world and bring awareness to the North Korea issue.

Who were the English buddies that you studied with?

I studied with Mark during summer, and with Cydney during fall. We used a textbook to review vocabulary, grammar, different idioms, and expressions… We also spent time talking about our lives and cultures. I feel like learning English is not just about the language, but also learning about the culture and connecting with other people.

During that time, the only things I did were working and studying English. I was so busy and exhausted. I was kind of hoping for someone to share my everyday life with. Being able to not only study with Mark and Cydney, but also share life and talk about ourselves gave me a lot of comfort and encouragement.

Among the expressions you studied, what was the most memorable?

There’s an expression, “a blessing in disguise,” that really stuck with me. All the hard times and difficult moments I had in North Korea, now that I look back, were all moments of blessing. They made me stronger and more resilient. I became thankful for the fact that I was from North Korea, and I was so happy to find a perfect expression for my feelings. I use the idiom often now.

Looking back, how has studying English impacted your life? What are your dreams for the future?

Back in North Korea, it was difficult to dream about the future. I already had my path chosen for me. My hometown had a huge coal mine, and most of the village people worked there. If your dad was a coal miner, eventually you’d become someone who also worked in the mining industry. It was hard to have a dream.

In South Korea, I learned that if you work hard, you can achieve anything. In the beginning, I didn’t know a single letter in the alphabet, but now I’m able to freely express my thoughts in English. I can have deep conversations with my friends from foreign countries. And I am equipped with both the confidence and skills to become a nurse in the US. I want to work hard and show to others who I really am, how far I can go, what I can achieve.

A North Korean Mom and Son’s Harrowing Escape | Harry’s Story

January 5, 2024

The town I grew up in was surrounded by mountains. When the season was right, my friends and I would hike up to look for pears. Fresh fruit was a luxury in North Korea, but the mountainside was covered in orchards. One day we snuck in when the fruit was still green, hoping to avoid the guards.

I hid in a tree, passing down pears to my friends, when we heard a whistle blow. My heart was pounding; it was like a heist movie. I rolled away and ran out of danger. Somehow, we got away with it. It didn’t even matter that the fruit we ate was not ripe and made our stomachs hurt—we felt unstoppable.

Little did I know that just a few years later, I would be running for my life once again… but this time, it was not a game. I would be escaping from North Korea.

Life in North Korea was normal to me. I went to school and spent time with my friends and older sister. All I knew about South Korea was from the movies I’d secretly watched. It seemed like a scary place, where they trafficked drugs and stole your organs.

My mom was often busy with work. She had a job that connected North Koreans to China, wiring money between families. With her income, we were able to live comfortably. But it was risky. She could usually bribe the guards to let her cross the border safely, but it wouldn’t work forever. One day, she was caught and sent to one of North Korea’s brutal prison camps.

My mom spent two years in the prison camp, forced to do intense labor every day while barely being fed. She told us later that she had shared a concrete cell with 50 other people and they lacked basic things like soap, toilet paper, and sanitary products. Guards would abuse their power and find any reason to assault them.

Many people in the camp were also women who had been arrested for crossing the border, trying to find ways to make a living and take care of their children. Dying in prison meant your crimes would be passed on to your family. And so, many of those women endured faithfully until they were released, and then passed away afterward.

When my mom finally left the camp, she quit the work she was doing and told her clients she was done. But one of them refused to hear it.

He was a South Korean fisherman whose boat had been thrown off course by a typhoon, and North Korean authorities refused to let him return home. One night, he showed up drunk at our house and threatened my mom. If she didn’t take him across the border, he would turn her in. So she had no choice. None of us did.

My mom took me with her and brought the old man to the border of North Korea. We were supposed to meet some brokers who would take him across, but they couldn’t agree on a price or a place. After a few days of waiting, everything went wrong.

The police had discovered our plan. They had our photos and were already putting up wanted posters for our capture. There was no way we could go home now. The choice was made for us. We had to flee the country with the old man.

I thought I would die that night. Armed soldiers patrol the river bordering North Korea and China, and are told to shoot defectors on sight.

If caught, my mom would have faced life in prison for her second offense—no better than a death sentence. But somehow, we made it to the other side.

In China, we waited three days in the mountains for our brokers. Every moment spent at a standstill was a huge risk, because Chinese authorities pay local citizens to report North Korean refugees. When it became clear that help wasn’t coming, we headed for a nearby village, laying low in the grass until the cover of night.

By nightfall, we took our chances and entered the village. Luckily, we met a kind woman who introduced us to a new broker. This broker helped us get to another city where the old man was picked up by South Korean officials and flown home to his family. As for me and my mom, we couldn’t go back to North Korea. So we went to see my middle sister, who had already been in China for quite some time.

Before I was born, my mom took my two sisters to China with her. She wanted them to stay there safely, but my oldest sister refused and returned to North Korea with my mom. My middle sister was left behind, sent to live with a trusted friend. But the unthinkable happened. At 12 years old, she was trafficked and sold to be married to a much older man. Every night, she would stand by the water well, threatening to hang herself if the man came near her.

But one year later, the inevitable happened. When she was just 13 years old, she had a baby. 

Like many other young North Korean women, my sister went across the border seeking a better life, but ended up living her teenage years in captivity, with no laws or family to protect her. Every day she had imagined running away, until finally she did. She reunited with my mom in North Korea when she was 20.

But not everything went as hoped. Though she was happy to be together with our family again, it turned out life was just as hard in North Korea. In the end, my sister returned to her daughter in China just a few years later.

It had been years since we last saw my sister, and it was my first time meeting her daughter, my niece. We were the same age. For a month, we all enjoyed the bittersweet reunion. Then my sister connected us with another broker, and my mom and I finally escaped for good.

We eventually reached South Korea and it turns out, it wasn’t the dangerous country I had seen in movies. 

Still, the memories of everything we had been through tormented me. I was angry at the old man who pressured us into his escape plan. I hated that my mom chose such a risky job in the first place.

Later we found out my oldest sister had been tortured by North Korean authorities when we left, leaving her devastated by mental illness. They wanted her to confess that our family had helped the old man escape. Someone had to take the blame. My older sister, who was once strong and reliable, would never be the same again.

When I first reached South Korea, I hid my past. Everything was terrifying and different—the culture, the lifestyle, and even the language. My new friends would hang out at internet cafes and I didn’t even know how to use a computer.

But I started learning. I studied hard in school and got a job to support myself. I began reading books to develop my own philosophy for my new life. I even started playing video games and for better or for worse, became just as obsessed as everyone else.

When I got to high school, I finally told my friends the truth about my life. Their response was so different from what I had expected. I found that rather than being cruel, they were curious. I realized the importance of my story, and how sharing my family’s painful experiences could change people’s perspectives about North Korea.

In 2019, at the end of high school, I met someone from Liberty in North Korea. I was so curious how she spoke about North Korea. She invited me to attend their Changemakers Summit and I had never experienced anything like that before—South Koreans, North Koreans, and even foreigners who were all young, open-minded, and interested in how to make an impact on this issue.

Truthfully, I never saw myself as an activist. I didn’t think I had what it takes. 

But if I could change how just one person saw North Korea—to see the people and their resilience, bravery, and hope instead of the regime—I realized I was already acting as an advocate.

These days, I’m working and studying full time. After coming to South Korea my mom got her masters degree and is now writing a book about her life. My middle sister eventually escaped and joined us in South Korea too. She got remarried and finally gets to live a normal life. Even though we’re all pursuing different things, we’re still together, holding tightly to the hope that we will someday reunite with my older sister.

Today, I can be my own person. I can buy fresh fruit whenever I want, or walk along the Han river anytime. After all of the running and all of the pain, I am finally free to choose my own life.

Harry’s story echoes that of many North Korean refugees, who live with the weight of their past while grasping onto hope for the future. After what happened to his oldest sister, Harry says he has nothing left to lose. That’s why he chooses to speak openly about the horrific things he and his family have experienced, hoping to bring change and one day reunite with her in a free North Korea.

Help us continue to to sustain refugee rescues, empowerment programs, and efforts to change the way the world sees North Korea.

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