One Day with the North Korean People | LiNK Summit 2023

July 26, 2023

After five years, LiNK Summit made its return on June 3rd, 2023! Over 200 Allies, North Korean advocates, fellow activists, and global LiNK staff gathered to spend One Day with the North Korean People in Long Beach, CA. We had supporters who drove hundreds of miles and flew in from across the US, bringing friends and family to join the movement.

Working on this issue can often feel isolating. Summit was a much-needed, powerful reminder that so many incredible people are committed to seeing a free North Korea in our lifetime. Through the course of a day, attendees had the opportunity to hear directly from and collaborate with North Koreans through different breakout sessions and experiences.

LiNK Summit at CSU Long Beach in Southern California

The Jangmadang Experience

Perhaps the highlight of this year’s Summit was The Jangmadang Experience – a collection of interactive booths and installations inspired by North Korea’s grassroots markets. Attendees could see smuggled goods, try North Korean food, pick up swag, and find ways to take action.

Attendees trying North Korean snacks at the Jangmadang Experience

The “Taste of North Korea” food booth was a favorite among guests. Our North Korea-born staff were able to source authentic North Korean cookies and candy, as well as corn flour, which they used to prepare sweet corn rice cakes at the event.

People returned for seconds, then thirds. Our North Korean friends were shocked by the familiar tastes, and reminisced about the last time they had these snacks in North Korea. It was so heartwarming to see how food connected past and present, and created a new experience for everyone.

North Korean sweet corn rice cakes

“Under the Same Sky” was a collaborative installation inspired by Joseph Kim’s memoir and the colorful prayer ribbons at Imjingak Park near the border of North & South Korea. When Joseph Kim thinks about his sister, whom he hasn’t seen since his escape, he says:

“Right now, we only share the stars. But I can look up at night and see that you are under the same sky. That will have to be enough until I find you.”

Attendees were asked to share their own messages of hope and tie them to the wall. As the day passed, it was so encouraging to see the number of ribbons grow- a reminder that we’re all under the same sky, and one day every North Korean will be free.

Summit attendees hang up messages of hope

Another popular destination was “Past Lives,” a collection of smuggled goods and mementos from North Korea. Each of the objects- North Korean money, propaganda posters and pins, a razor blade, a floral dress, and more- held powerful stories and memories from the past lives of our North Korean friends.

An exhibit of items from North Korea

As guests perused the rest of the booths, they could write postcards inviting people to become Allies, record a message of encouragement to our North Korean friends, marvel at photos from inside North Korea, and more. It was a vibrant and exciting part of the day, emulating the dynamism of the Jangmadangs in North Korea!

The Red Box Live

Inspired by our popular YouTube series, The Red Box, we created an offline opportunity to ask our North Korean friends anything about life in the most closed country in the world. Harry, Joy, and Sunghee shared their personal stories while candidly responding to audience questions about everything from dating in North Korea to experiences with discrimination in South Korea.

“I learned that every North Korean refugee has their own unique story, and the freedom they enjoy now is something that all 25 million North Koreans deserve.”
– Summit attendee

From left, Sunghee Yi, Joy Kim, and Harry Kim

Imagining the Future of North Korea

We can’t know what path North Korea will take, but we do know that irreversible change is already happening and it's being driven by the people. In this panel we had North Korean activist, Seohyun Lee; expert on North Korea’s technology and media environment, Nat Kretchun; and LiNK’s South Korea Country Director, Sokeel Park, lead a discussion around imagining the future of North Korea and how we can support change.

Increasing the North Korean people’s access to outside information is one of our biggest opportunities to accelerate change on the ground. This session provided insight into the world’s most closed off country and LiNK’s current work in the area of information dissemination.

From left, Seohyun Lee, Sokeel Park, and Nat Kretchun

Allies Hackathon

The Allies Hackathon was a nod to the grassroots origins of LiNK, and how supporter-led LiNK Teams continue to be at the forefront of this movement. At this interactive session, participants teamed up to brainstorm how we can bring more attention to this issue, drawing from other parts of the day. The goal was to equip and empower attendees to take the momentum from Summit back to their communities!

“Jihyun and Esther brought the energy for the Allies Hackathon! I thought the prompts and how we broke into different groups was great, and it was fun to hear everyone’s ideas. I plan to stay in touch with my little group and hopefully we can encourage each other to stay active in our support for this issue.”
– Summit attendee

LiNK staff members leading a brainstorm session

North Korean Agents of Change

North Korean defectors have incredible potential to impact this issue, from both inside the country and as they resettle in freedom. In this session, LiNK’s CEO, Hannah Song, led a conversation with North Korean advocate, Daehyeon Park, and a visionary North Korean entrepreneur who are supporting their communities, empowering others, and leading this movement as agents of change.

“Daehyeon was asked ‘What would it take for CHANGE - the big change in North Korea, that we all want to see.’ He was very quick to respond that LiNK currently has about 30 employees. What would it take for them to have 300 employees, 1000 employees? I was SO STRUCK at his faith in LiNK, that THIS ORGANIZATION could make this happen! He, who has been through it all, believes that this group of workers and volunteers are enough. They are passionate enough, smart and inventive and creative enough, to open up and free his nation. I was on a high all the way home!”
– Summit attendee

A crowd of Summit attendees cheering

Keynote Speaker: Joseph Kim

After a day of nonstop inspiration and life-changing conversations, everyone gathered to hear from Joseph Kim, a North Korean defector, advocate, and the Associate & Expert-in-Residence, Freedom and Democracy at the Bush Center.

In 2013, Joseph delivered a TED Talk on the importance of hope and published a memoir, “Under the Same Sky.” At Summit, he revisited the power of choosing to have hope for this issue.

“It’s important to remember that North Korea is a land with darkness, not a land of darkness. There is hope for the future, and I have chosen to live my life believing in that hope.”

Our keynote speaker, Joseph Kim

Finally, LiNK’s CEO, Hannah Song, wrapped up the day with a few parting words on what lies ahead.

“I know that North Korea can seem like this unchanging issue, one that definitely feels hopeless at times. In those brief moments of despair, I think about how hard some of our North Korean friends fought for their freedom…. I’m reminded that it is a privilege for us to do this work, because that means there is still something that we can do.”

At the end of the day, our excitement and confidence in the future was renewed. Each and every one of us has the ability to be a force for change. As the North Korean people strive towards their freedom, their hope for the future should galvanize us all.

We’re already looking forward to the next LiNK Summit! From all of us on the LiNK team - thank you to everyone who made this day one to remember.

Global LiNK staff from both the US and South Korea offices

A North Korean Father Risks Everything for Family | Doohyun’s Story

April 24, 2024

I lived in North Korea for over 20 years, and for much of that time, I believed my life was normal. I grew up in a big city by the river. When the wind blew, I could smell the water on the breeze, and on holidays, I played along the banks with my friends.

The river ran along the border between North Korea and China. I could see across the water into a different world–one where cars lined the streets, and buildings stretched high into the sky.

But I didn’t realize that life should be different, until the day they took my father away.

My father was a great businessman. He provided for our family despite being forcibly discharged from the military when his Minister of Defense was executed by Kim Il Sung. Labeled as a “traitor,” he was banned from decent jobs and opportunities. 

Still, my father was a clever man and found success within the private market system that many North Koreans rely on to survive. Until one day, the police came to investigate him.

Without reason or warning, my father was arrested and imprisoned. They tortured him for a year. When he was released, my father weighed only 66 pounds.

Even after surviving the unimaginable, he was defiant. He wrote 20 pages of complaints to the Central Party about the human rights abuses he endured. My family was terrified of the consequences, but we couldn’t stop him. He fought for his voice to be heard.

On a warm Spring day, a Mercedes-Benz, license plate number 216, arrived at our home. February 16th was Kim Jong Il’s birthday, and cars with this number were only given to his closest aides. My father spoke with the man for hours about his letter. The man apologized and promised something like this wouldn’t happen again. This gave us a bit of hope for the future – for the possibility of change.

But the man left for Pyongyang. And then the police returned. I never saw my father again.

For two years, my family and I lived in unknowing agony, receiving no news on my father. Eventually, we heard from my father’s friend, who was a police officer, that he had passed away in prison. 

At the very least, we wanted to send him off properly, so we asked that same friend how we could get my father’s body. Three days later, he returned. He told us they would not return my father’s body. My father had been sentenced to eight years in prison. He’d passed away after two. He still had six more years to serve – as a dead body. As a corpse.

For the first time I wondered whether this was the way normal people lived.

In 2009 I decided to escape from North Korea. Life had become near impossible for me after my father’s death, and I continued to face discrimination due to our family’s status in society.

By then, I had been married to my wife, Jiyeon, for two years. Most of our relationship before marriage was through the phone, because we lived far apart, and traveling in North Korea is difficult. So we called each other every night and talked for hours. 

Now, I didn’t know if I was going somewhere she would never be able to reach. I told her it was a business trip. Two weeks. I’ll just be gone for two weeks

She still cried at the train station, thinking about those two weeks. I couldn’t cry with her because then she would know the truth. So I boarded the train without a word, and watched it take me away from her.

From the moment I escaped North Korea, it felt like I was being chased by a grim reaper. There were multiple close-calls where I felt death breathing down my neck.

I was once hiding in a corn field near the Chinese border. Lying on my stomach, I watched soldiers patrol the area when suddenly, one of them walked towards me. It was too late to run or hide. 

I had brought poison with me in case something like this happened - I knew it would be better to kill myself rather than be captured. But as I prepared to take the poison, I thought of my wife. I thought about how she would never know what happened to me.

In that moment of sheer terror, I heard the sound of water. The soldier stood right beside me but he hadn’t seen me. He had only walked over to relieve himself. For the next few minutes, I couldn’t move. The soldier had left, but my body held onto the terror of that moment. I remained hunched and hurried for the rest of the journey.

Eventually, I made it safely to South Korea. I started working as soon as possible – 12 hour days to pay back the broker fee, and save up money for my wife’s escape. My schedule was just working and sleeping, working and sleeping. It was hard, but for the first time in a long time, I had hope.

I was able to find a broker who put me in contact with my wife. It had been ten months since I’d defected at that point – ten months of her not knowing whether I was dead or alive. The call couldn’t be made in the city because the signal could be intercepted, so my wife and the broker hiked to the top of a mountain.

When we heard each other’s voices again, all we could do was cry. But we didn’t have much time, and so I asked her, you’re coming, right

She said she was.

On December 27th, 2011, Jiyeon crossed the river to escape North Korea on the same route that I took.

As soon as my wife arrived in South Korea, I went to meet her. I was so excited. I couldn’t stop crying. When my wife came into the room, she was crying too – but do you know what’s the first thing she did when she saw me?

She punched me – crying, calling me a liar. And I deserved it.

We live in Utah now with our two beautiful sons. We go fishing, camping, and enjoy the outdoors together. Every time I see them, I realize I’m living in a different world, one where we can finally dream and decide our own future.

This is the life I’ve made for my children. This is the life my father envisioned for me and for all North Koreans when he made his act of defiance. My father died fighting for his voice to be heard – and now, finally, he’ll be heard by the world.

Doohyun risked everything to create a future where his family could live together in freedom. Their story isn’t unique - there are many more North Koreans waiting and hoping for the day when they can reunite with loved ones. Help make freedom part of every North Korean’s story.

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Since resettling in the United States, Doohyun has completed his undergraduate studies and now works for a North Korean human rights organization. He considers helping the North Korean people to be his life’s mission, continuing his father’s legacy.

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