So many people, when they think about North Korea, think about nuclear missiles or political threats or the Great Leader. They don’t really think about the North Korean people and their own stories and the hardships they have trance face,” said Haejin Song, president of the Berkeley chapter of Liberty in North Korea, or LiNK.
What the average person knows about North Korea is often speculative and sensationalized. Media outlets provide bits and pieces on North Korean politics and we accept them — we count ourselves lucky to have any information on North Korea at all. When we talk about North Korea, we talk about Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship, the bureaucratic elite’s manipulation of information and the subsequent indoctrination of the North Korean people to the mentality of the state.
But while this conception of North Korea as a political enigma may be true, there are students at UC Berkeley that advocate a more in-depth perspective on North Korea. They believe that, though we may turn a blind eye on a country so closed off and silent, with the help of grassroots organizing, people can escape from North Korea and share their stories, ultimately changing the way the rest of the world views this mysterious nation.
LiNK is the largest nonprofit organization actively addressing the humanitarian crisis occurring in North Korea. In a lecture hosted by the Berkeley Forum on April 20, LiNK’s president and CEO, Hannah Song, defined LiNK’s efforts as “accelerating change with the North Korean people on the ground and changing the narrative surrounding North Korea.” This mission statement sounds daunting and practically unbelievable, but according to Hannah Song, LiNK has been successful in arranging 465 refugee rescues. LiNK has offices in Torrance, California, and in Seoul, South Korea, from which it helps in the refugee rescue process for North Koreans who have already escaped into China and would like to relocate to South Korea.
Getting North Koreans out of North Korea and resettled is only half of LiNK’s mission. Recentering the narrative of North Korea onto the plight of its people — refugees or current inhabitants — is the other main task of LiNK’s extensive chapter network of 253 high schools, universities and churches. UC Berkeley’s LiNK branch has been around for almost eight years, actively working to raise awareness on the human rights crisis in North Korea in addition to fundraising for LiNK’s international efforts.
“We had one event on Sproul that was focused on the political prison method that North Korea uses. We posted drawings that North Koreans had done directly (of the prison sites),” Haejin Song said. According to her, many viewers were unaware of what the drawings were.
Most people are familiar with the political oppression of the North Korean administration, but few are aware of the extent to which this oppression is carried out. Political dissenters are detained in specific political prisoner camps, reminiscent of the Gulag labor camps of the Soviet Union. From what limited knowledge we do have regarding these camps, we can deduce that the “conditions are unspeakable,” explained Sunny Choi, a LiNK veteran member.
The display of these provocative images helped LiNK draw attention to more than just the political situation in North Korea: The hand-drawn pictures from camp survivors emphasized the human element behind these experiences. By doing so, Haejin Song hoped that LiNK would be able to “shift the narrative” toward the people of North Korea and their stories, an integral part of LiNK’s worldwide ambitions.
Getting North Koreans out of North Korea and resettled is only half of LiNK’s mission. Recentering the narrative of North Korea onto the plight of its people — refugees or current inhabitants — is the other main task of LiNK’s extensive chapter network of 253 high schools, universities and churches.
“Re-education is the number one step to shifting that narrative,” she said. North Korean refugees are the biggest asset LiNK has in re-educating the Bay Area and worldwide population; their stories resonate strongly with listeners in a way that politics cannot. So far, this re-education has been successful: LiNK’s membership has grown steadily over the past few years since its debut on the campus 12 years ago. LiNK’s re-education efforts have also brought high profile speakers to the UC Berkeley campus, such as the South Korean human rights ambassador, Lee Jung-Hoon, and the chief strategy officer from the Human Rights Foundation, Alex Gladstein. On April 21 in the Anna Head Alumnae House, LiNK held a Korean culture show called Seoulection in collaboration with the Korean American Student Association, or KASA. The show included performances by UC Berkeley students and was headlined by Korean-American rapper and celebrity Dumbfoundead.
Events like Seoulection have earned LiNK a definite niche in the campus community, but its continued growth and expansion is contingent upon finding refugees who are willing to speak about their experiences. The North Korean refugee identity has a stigma attached to it, making some refugees cautious to disclose their identity. Some view North Koreans as less intellectually capable because they were not raised with the same access to education and information as most people are today. When asked if she knew of any North Korean refugees at UC Berkeley, Haejin Song responded, “I have heard that there is one North Korean student on campus. … I haven’t been able to meet him or her.”
While the best way to gain an understanding of North Korean life is through refugee accounts, UC Berkeley’s LiNK does not have the same direct access to refugees as the main organization does. Because of its sensitive nature, only the LiNK headquarters have access to all the information regarding refugees. But the chapter organizations of LiNK still manage to play an important role in the escape and assimilation process.
Within the past year, UC Berkeley’s LiNK has started a new English language tutoring program to assist refugees in assimilation. Members of LiNK at Berkeley are individually paired with a North Korean refugee based in Seoul, with whom they Skype a couple times a week. Giving North Korean refugees a voice, especially amid the chaos of the world outside North Korea, is essential, and LiNK hopes this program will encourage more North Koreans to speak about their experiences. The primary way, though, in which Berkeley’s LiNK supports escape efforts is through fundraising. The money LiNK raises goes towards refugee rescues, refugee resettlement, education grants for refugees, and other fundraising efforts by the headquarters.
Breaking this barrier of silence, this impenetrable facade, is what LiNK has been working to do despite the failures of other political institutions to agree to do the same. It claims that its success comes from renewing public interest in the human aspect of North Korea and that much of its advocacy is accomplished by chapter groups at local schools and colleges. The political issues will remain contentious and all-consuming, but the success of LiNK and all of its chapter organizations reveals that efforts even thousands of miles away can have a serious effect on improving the conditions in North Korea. Taking actions to enable the North Korean people will instigate change from the bottom up, which could prove to be more effective than any overarching international negotiations.
Contact Tess Hanson at [email protected]
A previous version of this article stated that LiNK hopes more North Koreans will choose to make the escape into China. However, LiNK does not encourage North Koreans to neither stay nor flee from North Korea; they do not participate in the political contention surrounding the country.
A previous version of this article stated that LiNK orchestrates escapes from North Korea. In fact, LiNK does not enter North Korea, but rather assists in the refugee rescue process for those who have already escaped into China.
A previous version of this article stated that all money from fundraising efforts is wired back to citizens of North Korea. However, the money actually goes towards refugee rescues, refugee resettlement, education grants for refugees, and other fundraising efforts by the headquarters.