Liberation Through Advocacy
"My name is Joseph. I am North Korean. I love playing soccer. In North Korea it was much more than a game. It was an escape from poverty for me and my friends. We played every chance we had, forgetting about all our troubles. I think all of us dreamed of one day living a better life outside these walls. My parents constantly fought constantly over the stress of having so little to eat. When I was 13, my father died from starvation. Soon after, my sister escaped to China to earn money and find food but she never returned. Then later my mother disappeared. I’m not sure what happened. Even in my hardships, I decided instead to have hope. In the winter, I escaped over the frozen Tumen River into China and survived by finding shelter in an abandoned house. I tried, but was unable to find my sister. I didn’t know what would come next or what I could do. Then I heard about a group of people who helped North Korean refugees like me to get to other countries. Realizing the opportunities that could come with this was life-changing. At LiNK’s shelter in China I once again had a goal, had hope to keep me going. In the shelter they gave me a bed and clothes of my own. Also, I lived with others like me who had left North Korea. I finally got to play soccer again with other North Korean defectors. LiNK helped me get asylum at the US consulate, I became excited to start a new life.”
There are 15,000 citizens enslaved in labor agreements in foreign to pay off their country’s debt or to earn money for the regime, over 200,000 imprisoned in political prison camps, 300,000 refugees hiding in China (of which 70-90% of the female refugees are forced into sex trafficking), 1 million dead due to starvation just in the 1990’s. This is the humanitarian crisis in North Korea that is comparable to some of the other historical atrocities, such as the Armenian genocide in 1915, the Rwandan genocide, and Hitler’s concentration camps. This is the humanitarian crisis Liberty in North Korea, otherwise known as LiNK, is fighting to eradicate.
LiNK was founded six years ago in 2004 by Adrian Hong and Laurie Kim. They weren’t directly affected by the crisis nor did they have family members or people they knew in North Korea. They felt moved by the humanitarian crisis alone and when they learned about this crisis, they decided to create a non-profit organization that advocated awareness by targeting and educating the grassroots about the current situation in North Korea. They sent two teams to the border of North Korea in “the winter of 2004 to see for with our own eyes what we’ve been told by so many. After meeting with refugees and activists who silently toiled in heartbreaking conditions facing difficult moral decisions every day, we opened our own network of small shelters and safehouses and supported other efforts in the area,” said Adrian Hong in a video, “getting into North Korea to directly reach the people is a tall order, but we can reach those in China. Over the past decade nearly half a million have at some point crossed North Korea into China, seeking food family or freedom.” LiNK also “meet(s) with governments, NGOs and institutions to advocate for the North Korean people, while working directly with refugees through a network of shelters in China and Southeast Asia” (LiNK website). LiNK has a subdivision called Liberty House that works specially with refugees. Liberty House works to ensure the safety and the anonymity of these refugees and help them acculturate and live, be it through scholarships and grants, or through helping them with studies and teaching them English. There are many people who have not heard of what’s going on in North Korea and do not know to take the time to research what is going on. LiNK’s stance is raising awareness so more people would be moved to do something about it.
LiNK’s headquarters is located at a warehouse in Torrance. There I was met by a nomad named Justin Artoff. Justin is a Caucasian man of average height, a strong build, and brown hair almost to his shoulders. I had talked with him previously but only through phone. Inside, there was a Yorkshire terrier named Happy, an office pet with a collapsed trachea and inverted legs, who roamed around the office wheezing. The nomads there were busy trying to make last minute bookings for screenings. Screenings are a special even where a fictional movie, written by Lee Yu-Jin called, “The Crossing,” is shown. This is a emotional film based on the journey of a North Korean refugee and his family. It is used to tug at the viewers hearts, to open their eyes to what is happening. It is an accurate representation of accounts that have actually happened and to North Koreans, this movie is a sign of hope that a life outside is tangible. “I heard that it’s the number one trafficked movie last year into North Korea,” said Susan Duggen, a previous Liberty House intern and nomad, “there were a couple [refugees] that I met in Denver [at a screening], an older grandmother, I didn’t get to talk to them in detail, they just came by and said ‘thank you, we’re from North Korea.’ They didn’t want to reveal anything about themselves. I later heard from someone else that they still have family and they’re very wary, very shy to meet people because they don’t want their identities to be exposed. So they just stopped by and said thank you so much for showing that and the older grandmother, she just hugged me and we were just shocked and just so touched that this women came and hugged all of us and cried.”
Nomads are volunteers that give up several months of the year to train and travel around a certain section of America in a van and actively educate people about the North Korean crisis. There are four different teams: the west team, a heartland team, a southeast team, and a north east team. Basically, these teams, each consisting of about three members, went to their respective region’s states showing screenings anywhere that was willing to show it. For all throughout the four and a half weeks of training that all the nomads do, they book screenings. For the first two weeks and a half, they book screenings straight from 7:30 in the morning until 5. I visited a couple days before the teams left, and they were booking from 7:30 to around 1. Screenings are an important part of the nomads’ journey and it is what is used to spark the interest and bring awareness to those who don’t know.
Justin Artoff first got involved with the non-profit organization To Write Love on Her Arms, a group targeting people who hurt themselves or were suicidal. “I wanted to get involved in helping people. I decided to move from flight to helping people got involved with a lot of non-profit, a couple years ago. I love to interact with people and talk with them. I really love the aspect of being able to travel, going on the road for this, meeting new people everyday,” he said. At one of their music festivals, he met two LiNK representatives who had a booth there. He watched “Seoul Train,” a documentary on North Korean refugees, and he was sold. “I had never really known what was going on inside North Korea. All I’ve really heard [about] was nuclear weapons… and when I heard about the human rights issue abuses occurring there, it intrigued me that I never heard about it and it kind of got me upset that I had gone through four years of college and never heard about this or what was going on. If I hadn’t heard about this, I realized nobody else had heard about it and someone need[ed] to do it[tell people about it].”
Two days after Justin heard about LiNK, he came to the headquarters to dedicate his time as a nomad. That was around November of last year. He is going again this February for his second tour and this time as the leader of the northeast team. Justin is 23-years-old and was born and raised in a small town in Oregon, 45 miles from the border of California. He went to a flight school in Prescott, Arizona, but decided that flying wasn’t what he wanted to do for a living. So he went to Lake Superior State in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and got his bachelors’ in Sociology. Soon after was when he started to get involved with To Write Love on Her Arms and then LiNK. His parents are pretty supportive about everything he’s doing but they are worried about him finding a steady-income job soon (nomads do not get paid). Justin had some concerns about the long driving and about how receptive the people in the Northeast would be.
I met his two teammates, Irene, a Belgian Taiwanese girl that had heard of LiNK while going to school in the UK, and Michelle, a Korean American from Hawaii. Irene was in charge of customers and Michelle was in charge of merchandise. All three of them took turns answering the phone. Irene and Justin were constantly on the phone trying to not only book screenings but find host families to stay with as well. Host families were people who were willing to open up their home for the nomads to stay for the duration of the nomads’ time in the city. As I shadowed Justin that day, I realized the amount of work that these nomads were pouring into this tour and how real their dedication was. The northeast team left two days after my visit to the headquarters and it has been 16 days since.
LiNK, besides sending out nomads, does other things to actively do something about the calamities in North Korea. Liberty house is a program within LiNK for refugee resettlement and it is to assist refugees with grants and scholarships to adjust and live. To get refugees out to America costs much money, maneuvering, and hoping. LiNK’s Nine Lives campaign asks for nine dollars a month which symbolizes the nine lives being saved. A seasonal fundraiser was The Hundred, which set a goal of $20,000 to save 100 people, because it supposedly takes $2,000 to rescue a refugee. They rescued about 20-25 refugees for this campaign and are hoping to continue it. Liberty House uses this income to save refugees that have escaped to China but are still in danger of being caught and sent back to North Korea. When asked how money is used in this procedure, Susan Duggen, said, “So the details, I’m not exactly sure of because it’s not even told to like regular volunteers or staff or anything. Basically, you can’t really pay off the Chinese government, it’s like against their law, but basically its paying the people who are going to do it themselves and also they probably are going to have to have money to bribe, not the government but government officials, who would look the other way, if they did catch the refugees.” After getting the refugees in the US, there is the problem of the US government allowing them political asylum here. And even if they were to receive that asylum, the problem with adjusting is another concern. “What’s really hard to see is the North Koreans, they come here, they have this dream, a loft dream, like they might have watched a movie, an American movie or something and think that everyone has a house and everyone has a car. One refugee actually thought that if you come to the US you just get a car, like, that’s just what happens, because America’s so rich. But that’s not the case. So trying to help them understand that, you know, they need to take care of their credit or if they want to go to community college, giving them a scholarship or if they can’t afford their rent one month we give them a grant or something like that. they’re human, they’re not just like angels that are going to work hard or try hard all the time. Some of them are just tired of all the pain that they’ve gone through and sometimes just once they get here, they might just relax and not want to do anything,” said Duggen.
I met Susan Duggen on a gray, windy day. She is a biracial (Korean and Caucasian) “military brat” who grew up in South Korea from when she was 6 until she was 17. She heard bits of what was going on in North Korea through the South Korean news while growing up but because of her young age, could not understand the gravity of the situation. She went to boarding school in Alabama where she finished high school and moved onto college here in California. She began “to do research and realize[d] that during the mid-90’s, when I had seen all that footage of people who were starving and emaciated, there was a huge mass starvation of over a million people and I really wanted to get involved, I wanted to do an internship with LiNK since my freshman year.” She didn’t get the chance to be involved until her junior year in college, when struggling with her major and her future decided to drop out of college. Coincidentally, LiNK was hosting a launch party, where she watched “The Crossing” and decided it was her time to join the movement. This was February of last year, and since then she has stayed with LiNK although she has not recently been as active due to her resuming school and pursuing a set career path: teaching.
Susan has gotten the opportunity, like Justin and other LiNK nomads and interns, to have hands on experience with refugees. Susan, as a Liberty House intern worked with several. She learned her passion for teaching while teaching Joseph SAT words over the summer. While working with him, she grew to really love him and develop a sister-brother like bond. Although he is in another state now with a new family, he still texts Susan over the holidays to wish her well and he refers to her as nuna, the Korean word for “older sister.” Joseph was one of the youngest refugees, and according to Susan, one of the brightest. “He really has been one of the most amazing people I have ever met in my life. It made me not take, or try to not take anything for granted because he’s always in a positive mood. Like his father died in front of him and his mother and sister both left to China, he doesn’t know what happened to his sister but he’s always smiling and he’s always just like so positive. Once he had an interview and I just saw him being emotional for once, I just realized how much he’s gone through and how people don’t even know the extent to which the pain and suffering these people have gone through. But he is one of the most amazing kids.”
At the headquarters I saw North Korean refugees, Shin Dong Hyuk and Danny Lee, some other refugees LiNK has worked with. Shin Dong Hyuk, in his mid to late-twenties, was a small man with a serious face, whereas Danny, 22, was more easy going, hanging from the stairs and smiling every so often while talking with the workers there.
Shin Dong Hyuk had lived a horrific life in North Korea, according to Susan. “He was basically born and raised in a concentration camp and he escaped when he was 21. But basically the political prison camp is like a concentration camp and he would like point at pictures of Nazi Jewish concentration camps and (say) ‘those are like the same clothes that we used to wear’, and ‘we would eat nothing sometimes’, and ‘I was tortured..’” Shin has written a book since he has gotten here, and “In the book, Shin describes the "common and almost routine" savagery of the camp: the rape of his cousin by prison guards and the beating to death of a young girl found with five grains of unauthorized wheat in her pocket,” (Washington Post).
Danny Lee escaped North Korea before graduating high school. His mom escaped to China after his family became homeless. Danny decided to go look for his mother “though he would have to leave his sister behind,” according to a LiNK chapter campaign pamphlet. In 2007, Danny came to the US through the hands of LiNK. Danny’s mother had also been protected by LiNK and was resettled in South Korea and “has since been searching for Danny’s sister.”
I went back to the headquarters several times after that first visit. During the second time I visited, it seemed a different environment. It was still the same warehouse, and the same pictures, and the same puppy sauntering around, but the nomads, their computers, and their busy bustle were gone. Where the nomads used to be, there was Danny and a woman deep in discussion. Andy, one of the staff, thanked me graciously for coming but told me that they weren’t doing much that day. The lady talking outside with Danny was Danny’s mother who he had not seen since their separation in North Korea. Before I left, Andy politely interrupted their conversation to introduce me to Danny. Not exactly knowing how to act, I offered my hand and said, “It’s nice to meet you.” He shook my hand firmly and with a smile, said in almost perfect English, “Nice to meet you too.”
Justin Artoff has written in a recent email, “Tonight was so great. We are in Sumter,SC and are going to be doing a screening at the local high school tomorrow. Anyways, the teacher, Ms. Hilton, who is putting on the screening hooked us up with a place to stay. When we got to the house we were greeted with hugs (which is my favorite, because people who greet with hugs are super nice) and they had a legit Italian meal made for us and a handful of high school students who we will be presenting to tomorrow. It was so cool to be able to meet with them and hang out for the night. I'm so pumped for this screening, it is going to be great!”
The horrific violations of basic humanitarian rights in North Korea is still ongoing. The 70-90% of women refugees to China are usually sold to Chinese men to marry. There is a refugee who was sold to a family of a 62-year-old father and 4 sons. Every night the men each “demanded her to share their bed every night. She was forced to go through this ordeal, even when she was sick or had her period. She did not have anyone to turn to, because there was not even a village nearby. She put up with this life for about eight months.” (donga). There are separated families and people and children dying of starvation. The real tragedy is that people remain ignorant of this situation and live their lives completely unaware.
LiNK seems to be making a difference in North Korea, however small it may be, whether it’s by saving refugees and relocating them, or by raising awareness through screenings and knowledgeable nomads. The workers are dedicated and always trying to find new ways to better their programming or trying to win grants to jumpstart an actual house for Liberty house, where refugees can stay and find haven. Through refugees like Shin Dong Hyuk, Danny, and Joseph, it is clear the impact LiNK has on refugees’ lives. Susan said, “Some people would still be in China, some might have been caught and sent back to North Korea, some people might be still awaiting asylum in the US or South Korea and yea, just really meeting those people I feel like they would be leading very different lives and might be or might not even be here or be in a political prison camp because obviously if you’re caught in China you would be sent back. Yea, I really do believe that LiNK is making a difference.” The reason that more refugees are not stepping up and publicly revealing their horror stories or how LiNK has assisted them is because many refugees still have family back in North Korea who would have to pay the price if the government found out their family member had defected. Adrian Song, when describing what LiNK was doing, said, “All of our grassroots energy had to result in some meaningful change. At times it seems like we’re playing a cynical game, seeing who can come up with the most colorful language, the most compelling video, the most dramatic witness testimony, all in hopes of moving the hearts of strangers to care about a people an ocean away. But this is real life.”
January 19th- Talk with Susan Duggen
January 20th- Talk with Esther L.
January 27th- Meet with Susan Duggen
February 15th- Visited LiNK for the first time for about 3-4 hours
February 16th- Talk with Susan Duggen
February 26th- Went to LiNK headquarters for second time for about an hour
February 27th- Went to LiNK headquarters for third time for about 5 hours
February 28th- Went to LiNK headquarters for about 2 hours
February 28th- Email from Justin Artoff
-9 lives campaign pamphlet
-LiNK website and videos (including brief history, and Joseph’s)
-interview with Susan Duggen--->http://oc-groups.blogspot.com/2010/02/link-nomads.html