This summer, six representatives from three different Chapters, and a top individual supporter, joined LiNK on a trip to South Korea.
The trip was a reward to Chapter members from UCLA, Wilson HS, and UT-Austin for being the top fundraisers for our 2011 “The Race is On” campaign, and to Stephen Erich, for being a top fundraiser for “The Reliance.”
Together, we explored Seoul and met the refugees they were responsible for rescuing!
The trip started off with a visit to the LiNK office in Seoul where we talked about LiNK’s history and programs, shared stories of refugee journeys and experiences, and explained the resettlement process. We also had a Q&A session about changes happening in North Korea on a grassroots level.
Once we finished orientation, we went to the Gangnam district where we met up with one of our South Korean high school Chapters and had dinner at Mr. Pizza (yes, they had sweet potato pizza!). Together, we discussed our motivations, challenges, and victories, while brainstorming ways to have more of an impact in our local communities.
For many of the Chapter members, one of the highlights of the trip was meeting the refugees they were responsible for rescuing.
On the second day we took a train to the refugees’ homes outside of Seoul, where we shared meals and spent some time with them. Annie, LiNK’s Director of Field Operations, noted that the refugees were really inspired by this rare opportunity to meet some of the Chapter members who had helped them. In turn, the Chapter members were humbled by the appreciation and kindness they were shown.
“Suji insisted that I try all the side dishes and explained how everything was made,” said Jessica, Chapter president at Glen A. Wilson High School.
Hae Jung, who resettled to South Korea with her daughter Sue, expressed how grateful she was for all that she had in her new home. For some time, Sue had been in need of a backpack, but the family had always had to pay for other necessities first. When some of the Chapter members presented a backpack as gift, Hae Jung was very touched. “The tears she shed over the small Hello Kitty backpack we had brought her daughter were eye-opening beyond comprehension,” remarked UCLA Chapter president, Michelle.
On day three we met with Sun Mu, a former propaganda artist for the North Korean regime. Sun Mu escaped North Korea in 1998 and since then has been creating artwork that reveals the truth about the country.
When our taxi pulled up to our meeting place, we saw him standing there in a fedora and a black t-shirt that he had designed for LiNK. He escorted us to his rooftop studio where he talked about the symbolism present in much of his artwork and shared the meaning behind certain specific pieces. While visiting we were able to ask him several questions about his motivations, his life in North Korea, and his life now. “He’s one of the best kept secrets about this movement,” Julian, a member of UT-Austin’s Chapter, remarked. “I want to show the world what he’s doing.”
Another highlight of the trip was our visit on day four to the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which divides North and South Korea (above right).
It was crazy being able to go inside a joint conference room because we were able to go beyond the South Korea side of the concrete barrier that divides the two countries, into North Korea. It was a surreal moment crossing back to the other side, because we knew that the next time we’d be in North Korea would be when the North Korean people were free. Stephen, a top Reliance fundraiser, shared, “I can’t shake the memory of those North Korean guards marching up to the border, or the single soldier with his binoculars looking across at us. Someday I want to learn what their world is like.”
That evening we joined former LiNK Ambassador Shin Dong-hyuk (above left), whose story is recounted in the recently released Escape from Camp 14, and John, a seventeen-year-old refugee, for dinner at a Thai restaurant. Shin shared about a weekly webcast that he hosts which includes interviews of refugees who have resettled in South Korea, while John spoke about currently being in high school.
After dinner, Shin walked us up a mountain to a tower that had a wonderful view of the city lights. Michelle reflected, “For a man who has spoken before the UN, has a book written about his life, and has been through so much, he seemed so humble. The fact that he really wanted to show us Namsan Tower and spend time with us, the jokes he cracked on the way, and the comments he made at the top of the tower about the irony of the happiest people in the world being those who have the least, were are moments I will treasure and remember.”
On day five we visited a school for North Korean refugees who were orphans or whose families could not afford to support them.
Kyung, another of the refugees that our Chapters rescued, warmed our hearts when she hugged Annie as if she were an older sister. She spoke English well and her bubbly personality was infectious. We could tell that she was really bonding with her teachers and fellow students. “Meeting a North Korean refugee was an event I never expected to experience,” said Joan of the Glen A. Wilson HS LiNK Chapter, “but I’m glad that I had the opportunity to do so. This trip made me realize that my Chapter back at school is making a difference in peoples’ lives, one by one.”
As our trip came to a close, we gathered for dinner at a Korean barbeque restaurant to say good-bye to everyone and were pleasantly joined by some LiNK Alumni who were living in and visiting Seoul.
That evening, some of the participants shared the things that they took away from the experience. Stephen shared with us how he thought the trip “gave us a well-rounded picture of many aspects of resettled life: from the home-visit, to a night on the town, to a school visit. We were able to see the clients in ordinary settings as real people.” He continued, “The adventure re-centered me around the North Korea issue and encourages me to keep on using my knowledge and resources to help bring an end to the crisis.”
It was a great way to end our time in South Korea!
SARAH PALMER | Rescue Team Coordinator