North Korean refugees share their journeys to freedom

Wednesday, November 6, 2019 - 10:55pm

North Korean Refugee Ilhyeok Kim discusses his journey to South Korea at Creating Links: Humanity Beyond Another World held by LINK at Angell Hall Wednesday night.

North Korean Refugee Ilhyeok Kim discusses his journey to South Korea at Creating Links: Humanity Beyond Another World held by LINK at Angell Hall Wednesday night. Buy this photo
Madeline Hinkley/Daily

Liberty in North Korea, a student organization at the University of Michigan, invited two North Korean refugees to share their journeys to freedom on Wednesday evening at Angell Hall to about 75 people. Jeongyol Ri and Ilhyeok Kim are representatives of LiNK headquarters in Long Beach, Calif., where they share their stories with audience members. 

Ri is now a current student studying mathematics at Seoul National University, and Kim is studying political science and diplomacy and Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in South Korea. LiNK is a non-profit organization that aims to aid North Korean refugees in their journey to freedom. They have helped over 1000 North Korean refugees who have made the three-thousand-mile rescue route to Southeast Asia to freedom and safety. The organization also hopes to redefine public perception of North Korea by shifting the narrative from the politics to the people. 

Ri was born in Pyongsong, North Korea, where he developed a passion for math. After earning first place in a math competition and a spot in the North Korean International Mathematical Olympiad Team, Ri made his first trip abroad to Colombia for a math competition. 

Through a translator, Ri shared how this trip to Colombia was his first taste of freedom. After travelling to South Africa and Thailand for more math competitions, Ri was able to experience the fullness of life outside of the North Korean regime. 

After being offered a job from the North Korean government, Ri decided he did not want to work for the regime. At his last math competition in Hong Kong, Ri realized this trip was his last opportunity to defect while abroad. As a result, Ri snuck out at night and sought asylum at the South Korean consulate.

“I was so nervous, I felt like my heart would burst,” Ri said. 

Ri said his story has given him a greater purpose to spread awareness of the North Korean people.

“I am here because I want to work towards the day when no other North Korean has to give up their family and home in order to gain freedom,” Ri said.

Next, Kim opened up about his own path to freedom. In 1995, Kim was born in Saetbyeol at a time when a devasting famine that affected around 2 million people had just begun. He explained how families who lived on a farm were required to give their food to the government for distribution to the military before allocating to the North Korean people. As a result, Kim’s father resorted to stealing grain in order to avoid starvation.

Kim’s father was caught by the government and sent to a re-education center —  what many have dubbed as hard labor camps — for four years. 

“If a family member commits a crime against the regime, the entire family, including children who are not even born yet, can be punished and ostracized for life,” Kim said.

After Kim’s father was released from the hard labor camp, Kim and his family were constantly being watched by not only the secret police, but also their neighbors, friends and community. Eventually, Kim and his family made the move to escape by wading through the river between North Korea and China. 

“North Korean children can’t even freely express their dreams and spend so much energy struggling to survive that they don’t even have hope for their futures,” Kim said. “For me, freedom is when I can decide whether I want to do something or not. But I had to risk my life for that freedom. I dream of a day when every NK child has the opportunity to pursue a life they think is worthy of living.”

LSA senior Danielle Kim, president of the University’s LiNK, explained as a three-year member of the organization, she has worked to support North Korean refugees and hopes to share their humanizing stories with the University of Michigan community.

“I honestly think this event went above and beyond whatever expectations I had,” Kim said. “I am just so overwhelmed and so thankful for all the people who came out to support, and also the questions that were asked, and thoughtfulness, and also the stories … Hearing their stories first-hand and live was amazing to me.”

Ri and Kim’s stories showed a tremendous impact on not only Danielle Kim, but also the audience. Throughout the event, audience members had the opportunity to ask questions and share comments, and one comment, in particular, truly moved Danielle Kim.

“I really do think that after sharing their stories, they were able to change a lot of people’s opinions and perspectives,” Kim said. “At the end, someone made a comment that said something along the lines of ‘We have the utmost respect for you, and thank you so much,’ and I was just so overwhelmed. I think that’s what makes it worth it.”