LiNK English Language Program: Meet the Students of Fall 2021
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.
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 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.