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 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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