Content Warning: This piece discusses North Korea, and subsequently details of (at times graphic) physical violence and trauma.
“Freedom,” to Joseph Kim, a 31-year-old human rights activist and North Korean defector, “is like air. You can’t touch it or see it. We don’t think about it or appreciate it when we have it. But we notice it when we don’t have it, just like we notice when we don’t have oxygen.”
When the Western world thinks of North Korea, people’s minds often go to Kim Jong Un and his nuclear missiles or propaganda images of vast military parades rather than the diverse groups of individuals who call it home. This is why LiNK’s mission is to stress “people over politics” and thereby fight for the rights of average North Korean civilians.
On Thursday, April 1, Joseph, author of “Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America,” and Hannah Song, president and CEO of Liberty in North Korea, spoke over Zoom with students at the University of Michigan. Liberty in North Korea, or LiNK, is a non-profit organization dedicated to aiding North Korean people in the struggle against their totalitarian government and to rescuing and rehabilitating North Korean refugees who have crossed the border into China.
However, these defectors’ journeys, once they’ve arrived in China, are still harrowing. Unlike the rest of the international council, the Chinese government does not recognize North Korean defectors as refugees; in fact, it has a longstanding agreement with North Korea to send any caught defectors back to their home country. If deported back to the country, the defectors often face harsh punishments such as beatings, forced labor, torture and internment. Additionally, it is estimated that 60% of North Korean women who escape to China are trafficked, sold as brides by their brokers to the highest bidder. To avoid such persecution, LiNK guides defectors through a rescue route that stretches the roughly 3,000-mile span from the North Korean border in China to Southeast Asia. To put that into perspective, it is nearly 300 miles longer than the distance from New York to Los Angeles. Eventually, refugees are rehabilitated through job training, stipends, resources and housing. LiNK has thus far rescued 1,201 North Korean refugees. Since his ascent to power in 2011, Kim Jong Un’s harsh crackdowns on border security have cut the amount of North Korean refugees who manage to escape to South Korea in half.
But four years preceding the Supreme Leader’s rise, Joseph arrived in the United States of America, at 17 years old. He and Hannah, whom he calls “noona” (meaning older sister in Korean), are powerful, commanding presences, even through Zoom. Hannah is extremely charismatic and her voice brims with passion. I get the impression that nearly everything she says to the U-M students she has said many, many times before — not in a performatively rehearsed way, but out of her dedication to sharing these stories as often as she can, with whoever will listen to her. In colloquial conversation, Hannah is vibrant and fun — she refers to Joseph as “Jo Bro” and calls him her “brother from another mother” — and when she is speaking about the plight of the North Korean people, her vigor seems inexhaustible. Joseph, on the other hand, possesses an air of quiet dignity. His voice is soft and gentle, but some quality about him commands respect — perhaps it’s his pensiveness and apparent careful consideration of his words as he gathers his thoughts to speak. His and Hannah’s collaboration feels natural and moving, and despite the heavy subject matter they have to impart, the two try to joke around whenever they can. At one point, Joseph commends Hannah for her dedication to LiNK and she tells him to keep complimenting her. Later, Joseph also jokingly accuses Hannah of embarrassing him for putting him on the spot with a question. In response, she simply smiles and says, “Then my job is done.”
Hannah and Joseph have dedicated their lives to providing aid to the North Korean people until the people can eventually free themselves from their regime. The suffering which millions of average North Korean citizens endure today, as a result of Draconian rule, is entirely too vast to summarize in a single article. In 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry conducted an investigation into human rights violations in North Korea and concluded that “in many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity. … The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
To combat these issues, activist and then-student Adrian Hong and comedian Paul “PK” Kim co-founded the organization Liberty in North Korea, at Yale University in March of 2004, originally under the name “Liberation in North Korea.” (The two co-founders eventually moved on to different projects.)
Hannah said she has not always been cognizant of the suffering which plagues North Koreans: She claims that before the advent of Google, very few Americans knew about the human rights violations by the regime. It wasn’t until she read defector Kang Chol-Hwan’s memoir, co-authored by historian Pierre Rigoulot, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag,” that she started to grow educated about the humanitarian crisis. In 2006, she quit her corporate advertising job to devote herself full-time to aiding North Korean refugees, and two years later Hong selected her for the position of LiNK’s CEO.
LSA junior Joyce Jeong was recently announced to be the next president of the U-M chapter for the 2021-2022 academic year.
“One of my biggest frustrations (about life under the regime) is there’s just no access to be intellectually curious,” Jeong said. “If you have the smallest curiosity, you have no outlet to explore that… No music, no media and … North Korea has so many fear-mongering tactics where it’s like you can’t even think about things without having some sort of consequence.”
As an underclassman, Jeong had deliberated over whether or not to fully devote herself to LiNK. One reason she ultimately committed to the cause, in her words, is that “you don’t hear about North Korea in the news because … they don’t have the right to join assembly, they don’t have the right to religion, they don’t have the right to media… The fact that we know so little about (North Korea) should raise a sense of urgency.”
Pre-pandemic, LiNK at the University could be seen periodically at Mason Hall, a plastic table set up adjacent to one of the wood-paneled walls, and on it, a poster with “Liberty in North Korea” spelled out in large, red letters, alongside the various snacks they were selling to raise funds. In this past academic year, the U-M chapter has had to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic by taking its meetings to Zoom and drumming up innovative new fundraising ideas, like a talent auction and virtual dating game show. The LiNK headquarters requires roughly $3,000 to rescue and rehabilitate one North Korean refugee, and Jeong states that, despite the challenges that the two virtual semesters presented, the U-M chapter has managed to raise an impressive $6,000 in the past year alone.
Despite the U-M chapter’s fundraising success, the COVID-19 pandemic has effectively severed communication and financial support between many defectors and their family members who remain in the country. The pandemic has also severely hurt North Koreans’ chances of defecting from the country and resettling in South Korea because the regime quickly capitalized on the threat of the novel coronavirus by enforcing tighter controls at the state’s borders. According to Hannah, the most recent people whom LiNK was able to help to defect from the country escaped North Korea over a year ago, in January 2020. Even in China and Southeast Asia, with heightened movement controls and checkpoints, the underground pathway that leads to asylum in South Korea is much more difficult to navigate than it was in pre-pandemic times.
Despite these challenges — whose effects, according to Hannah, may linger for the next decade — it is as vital as ever that North Korean defectors continue to reach safety in other nations because if discovered, their attempted escapes often have dire consequences. In Hannah’s talk at the University, she recounts one woman’s failed effort to escape to China: After she and her 5-year-old daughter were apprehended for attempting to cross the river, she was beaten by a guard and then forced to watch as her own child was beaten and kicked until blood spilled from her mouth. Hannah shared another woman’s story of defecting from North Korea and attempting to meet with LiNK for aid in crossing into Southeast Asia: The woman’s husband and elder child were found by Chinese plainclothes officers and eventually repatriated. While she tried to hide with her two-year-old child to avoid capture, she covered her baby’s mouth to conceal any cries, and after she finally emerged, she realized she had accidentally suffocated her baby. The woman had to dig a shallow grave for her child and eventually make her way into Southeast Asia, alone.
Too often, North Korea is perceived as a purely political issue: a vast, terrifyingly ambiguous nuclear arsenal, an endless sea of seemingly brainwashed soldiers and the unhinged tyrant who commands them all. In addition, poor media representation has led to the memeification of the civilians’ plight and dehumanized North Korean citizens by cementing them as the butt of cruel jokes. However, the stories of these women are important to share because there are over 25 million people currently living under Kim Jong Un’s oppressive dictatorship, and many of them are suffering every single day. Hannah often feels frustrated because she believes that the crisis in North Korea is the single most urgent threat to human rights in the entire world, yet it is not receiving nearly as much attention as it warrants.
“There is this heart-wrenching reality to doing this work day in and day out,” she confessed. “Meeting with North Korean refugees … can be really challenging because (we) hear the same stories often times over and over again, stories of trauma and of trafficking, stories of what happened to people when they were being tortured or interrogated, challenges that people face in South Korea when they are resettled, loneliness and depression and anxiety about family they’ve left behind. It’s challenging. It’s difficult. And working on that every single day can definitely have a toll.”
According to his 2013 TED Talk “The Family I Lost in North Korea. And the Family I Gained,” the biggest mistake Joseph believes he has ever made was not hugging his sister before she left for China with their mother. He was just 12 years old at the time and had been assured that she would return home from the journey soon. Instead, his mother arrived home one day alone, unaccompanied by his noona, who had been sold by a broker to a strange man in China.
In the same year, Joseph suffered another loss in his family: His father passed away of starvation. The North Korean famine in the 1990s killed millions of citizens, and the threat of starvation still persists today. (As of 2020, the average life expectancy in North Korea is 71 years, 11 years lower than that of South Korea.) To Joseph, “Hunger is humiliation. Hunger is hopelessness.”
Shortly after, his mother was imprisoned for attempting to escape North Korea, and Joseph became homeless. During this period of his life, Joseph had to learn how to beg on the streets for food. At one point, he labored in a coal mine for money at 14 years old.
“When I could not fall asleep from bitter colds or hunger pains,I hoped that the next morning my sister would come back to wake me up with my favorite food,” he recounted in his TED Talk. “That hope kept me alive. I don’t mean big, grand hope. I mean the kind of hope that made me believe that the next trash can had bread, even though it usually didn’t. But if I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t even try. And then I would die. Hope kept me alive. Every day I told myself, no matter how hard things got, still I must live.”
Joseph’s voice is so evenly measured that his clipped and careful, matter-of-fact tone is difficult to connect with the terrible trauma he recounts with it. He is not, of course, apathetic to his own struggle; he merely frames it from the perspective of a North Korean defector, someone who has witnessed trauma and pain that can span dozens of lifetimes. He qualifies his own experience of being homeless and practically orphaned, living on the streets in North Korea, by assuring U-M students that his life then was better than many of the other homeless children, because they were abandoned by their parents while at least his parents had loved and cared for him. The perspective which bore this tone and this humility is nearly as heartbreaking as his own story.
In 2006, at the age of 16, Joseph decided to defect to China to look for his sister. The Tumen River that separated the two countries had frozen over, so he resolved to run across it. Knowing that attempting to defect at night without having bribed any guards (which he was too indigent to do) was suicide, and also still being afraid of the dark, he decided to take a leap of faith and cross the river in broad daylight. He doesn’t know how long he ran, but to him, it didn’t feel so long — estimates put this river’s width at approximately one mile of North Korean territory and 300 feet of Chinese territory. Eventually, on Feb. 15, 2006, Joseph successfully crossed the border into China.
However, life in China, according to Joseph, was even more difficult than life in North Korea, because of his confinement. He recalls feeling envious of people walking outside because he couldn’t go out for the daily fear of being caught and repatriated. Eventually, he located the man who had brokered his sister off in China, but the man had died just days before he arrived. To this day, he hasn’t found his sister.
Adjusting to life as a refugee was emotionally difficult for Joseph. He felt “suffocated” to have so much food in America when his father had died of starvation. He recalled how his father used to share his food with Joseph, always, even when he barely had any for himself. He also remembered how his father wanted him to study hard, and he resolved to “study hard and get the best education in America to honor his sacrifice.” Though he was a poor student in his home country, once he arrived in America at 17, Joseph completed his high school education and eventually graduated from Bard College with a four-year degree.
“Hope is personal,” Joseph said. “Hope is something that no one can give to you. You have to choose to believe in hope. You have to make it yourself.” Joseph still has not given up hope that he will meet his sister again someday.
Despite his difficult upbringing in North Korea, he hopes to return to his home country someday after it has achieved liberation to teach philosophy. Joseph said he misses North Korea because it is the place where he created his first happy memories.
Despite their unthinkable hardships, North Korean people are people: Their existences are not intertwined solely with their suffering, as media representation may suggest. These individuals lend support to their loved ones, indulge material desires when they can and laugh with one another, just like the rest of the world. It is imperative that outsiders grasp their human depth and complexity because they must do a better job of empathizing with North Korean people than they currently are.
As for the future of LiNK at the University, Jeong hopes to refocus the narrative on refugees’ stories in order to remind members of the reason they’re gathered together in the first place: to see North Koreans as people, rather than a politically charged monolith. Additionally, she is eager to begin raising increased funds, as they transition into in-person activities such as the Choco Pie fundraiser.
A significant portion of U-M LiNK’s revenue is raised through selling the cheap South Korean snack Choco Pie, a disk-shaped, chocolate-coated sponge with a marshmallow center. The intention behind selling Choco Pies is not simply rooted in their popularity and resultant high revenue, but also lies in the fact that each of these palm-sized cakes, which typically retail for about 50 cents in South Korea, is a coveted good in North Korea which sells for upwards of $10 on the black market. Choco Pie fundraisers themselves are a form of activism that serves to remind students that North Koreans enjoy the same pleasures as South Koreans and even U-M students; yet, they have limited access to Choco Pies (and other similar goods) due to economic and trade rifts. And as unlikely as it may seem, Choco Pies have grown to symbolize progress in North Korea, a nation that is often erroneously perceived as rigid beyond hope: According to expert Andrei Lankov, “(The Choco Pie) has become a symbol of South Korean prosperity.” Many North Koreans no longer believe that South Korea is a poorer nation, and consequently, the North Korean government has stopped trying to sell this narrative. The Choco Pie, for North Koreans who can afford it, is a taste of how it feels to be free. That this innocuous snack has helped to change an entire North Korean generation’s perception of the world beyond its borders testifies to the possibility of change in the nation.
North Korean defector and former diplomat Thae Yong-ho firmly believes that the North Korean regime will collapse sooner than many predict. He deems the current government a “socialist skeleton,” meaning its “bones have a socialist structure, but the flesh has already turned capitalist,” as evidenced by the annually growing number of free markets and black markets, known as jangmadang. Additionally, the millennial generation has more knowledge of the English language and a greater focus on foreign culture and materialism, rather than the ideals of communism: They watch American or South Korean films and shows; refer to each other with South Korean words like “oppa,” meaning brother, instead of “comrade” and their texting slang and dressing style have begun to emulate those of South Korea. Citing generations of power during the dissolutions of past communist States, Thae predicts that “after 10 or 20 years, when the power is with the (third) generation, … the people will be brave enough to go to the streets.” He further asserts that “even though the North Korean regime wants to stop it, they can’t stop this future.”
LiNK rescues individual refugees, but the revolution must rise from the North Korean people. Hannah shares her hope that liberty in North Korea can and will be achieved in this current lifetime for several reasons. For one, the permeation of foreign media is shattering the government’s carefully constructed image of the nation. Regime officials’ wages are so scant they rely on bribes from citizens, and the resulting corruption has prevented some quashing of private businesses. Many refugees send an estimated annual influx of $15 million into North Korea through broker networks, and this money creates market spending power for private business activities. Additionally, refugees maintain contact with family members in North Korea through black market cell phones and send information back into the country to raise people’s awareness of the outside world. North Korean defectors have asserted that the younger generation is significantly more informed about their government’s totalitarian rule. As citizens’ collective consciousness that North Korea is not a utopia grows, so does the pressure on Kim Jong Un and the regime as a whole to permit national development. In the narrative pushed by much of mainstream media, there is a common, savior notion that the outside world has to be the one to liberate North Korean people. But Hannah’s main message for the world is that, though people on the outskirts must aid them, the North Korean people can and will save themselves from the regime. The world needs to trust that revolution from the bottom up cannot be far behind. Liberty is not a lost cause.
“North Korea is not the hopeless, unchanging tragedy that it’s been portrayed as for so long,” Hannah said at a summit in 2014. “But the North Korean people are driving very important information, economic and social changes inside of the country. Our opportunity is to come alongside them and to support them in accelerating these changes … Ultimately, we believe in the North Korean people. We believe in their potential, in their dreams, and in their pursuit of a better life, where they have the freedom to fulfill and to achieve all of these things. And we really believe that if we can work together to accelerate all of these changes, then the North Korean people will achieve their liberty in our lifetime.”
Though it is tempting to view North Korea as futile, far beyond our and the people’s control, progress is happening. The younger generation’s shifting ideas and attitudes will create pressure to force the regime to yield and adapt to new changes. Each time the regime relents, North Korea arrives one step closer to freedom.
“I had hope, but hope by itself is not enough,” Joseph said in his TED Talk. “Many people helped me along the way to get here. North Koreans are fighting hard to survive. They have to force themselves to survive, have hope to survive, but they cannot make it without help. This is my message to you: have hope for yourself, but also help each other.”
Jeong believes that one of the best ways students can help North Korean citizens is by spreading the word about their humanitarian crisis through engaging in conversations and even simply by sharing LiNK infographics. Additionally, Jeong says that other important ways to help the cause are by donating to and supporting fundraisers: “Every dollar goes towards helping to rescue and rehabilitate a North Korean refugee.”
Senior MiC Editor Jessica Kwon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.