The 2019 LiNK Advocacy Fellows: North Korean Defectors Raising Their Voices
Meet the new class of LiNK Advocacy Fellows! They are already adjusting to life in the U.S. and learning how to become stronger storytellers and better advocates. All four of the AFers have incredible stories they want to share with the world. Here’s a little bit about each of them and what they hope to accomplish during the fellowship! Stay tuned for updates throughout their time here!
Joy was born in 1991 in Musan, North Korea and escaped when she was 18 years old. When she reached China, the broker who had helped her escape demanded that Joy repay her immediately for her assistance. When Joy couldn’t afford to pay, the broker took her from village to village, trying to sell her as a bride.After three humiliating days, an older Chinese farmer paid $3,000 for her. She tried to find a way to escape but soon became pregnant with the man’s child and gave birth to a daughter.
In 2013, Joy was introduced to LiNK’s network in China and was finally able to reach safety. She is now a university student studying social work in South Korea and wants to dedicate her life to helping families. “I want to be able to share my story in English without a translator’s help. I want to communicate freely and express my thoughts and ideas with others. When I return to South Korea in late November, I want to be able to look back at my time in the U.S. and feel empowered and proud of my work.”
Read more about Joy’s story here.
Ilhyeok is from Saetbyeol, North Korea and was born in 1995 at the start of the famine. Growing up, Ilhyeok often missed school to help his family make ends meet by fishing and farming. In order to feed the family, Ilhyeok’s father became a broker who helped defectors living in South Korea send money to their relatives inside North Korea. But when Ilhyeok was only 12, his father was caught and imprisoned for illegally owning a Chinese cell phone. Even after he was released, the authorities kept the family under close surveillance.
Well aware of the risks they would face if they tried to escape, but dreaming of a brighter future, one night llhyeok’s father suggested that the entire family leave their homeland in search of a better life. They fled that very night, and after a long and difficult journey made it to South Korea in 2011.
Ilhyeok is now a senior Political Science and Diplomacy major at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul and wants to work for the United Nations one day.“I want to improve my English skills because it is the international language. I want to be able to communicate with everyone so that I can raise awareness about what’s happening in North Korea. And I also want to meet new people from different backgrounds.
Dasom was born in 1993 in Gangwon Province, North Korea. When she was seven years old, her family relocated to Hamgyung Province. Before Dasom was even born, her grandfather had been accused of being a spy and was taken away that same day, never to be seen again. Because of North Korea’s system of collective punishment, her grandfather’s alleged crimes severely restricted the jobs she could get after graduating high school. Dasom had no other choice than to join a workers’ group doing manual labor for the government.
After being sexually assaulted at work, Dasom vowed to leave North Korea. She escaped with the help of a North Korean broker but was almost sold to a Chinese broker upon reaching China. Fortunately, a group of North Korean defectors she met connected her with LiNK and she was rescued soon after. She resettled in South Korea in 2014 and dreams of becoming a florist.“I want to be able to look back after the AF program ends and reminisce on all the good memories. I also want a lot of people to remember my story and who I am as a person.”
Jeongyol was born in 1998 and grew up in Pyongsong, close to North Korea’s capital city Pyongyang. Jeongyol’s father began teaching him math at a young age and by elementary school, he had mastered the middle school math curriculum. In high school, his extraordinary abilities earned him a spot on North Korea’s team for the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). In his first IMO in Colombia, Jeongyol won the silver medal. He went on to win the silver medal at the next three IMO competitions.
His success brought the attention of the North Korean government and they offered him a job. He asked for a deferral until after he was finished with his IMO competitions, but realized he’d eventually be forced to work for the regime. At 18, Jeongyol knew that the international competition in Hong Kong would be his last opportunity to defect while abroad. On the last day, while everyone was packing up to return home, he snuck out of the hotel and sought asylum at the South Korean consulate where his dramatic defection made international news.
Jeongyol resettled in South Korea in 2016 and is now a freshman at Seoul National University.“I want to meet people from diverse backgrounds and learn from them. I also want to share my story with as many people as possible.”
The Red Box: Misunderstandings and Stereotypes about North Koreans
For North Korean refugees, resettling in a new society comes with many challenges. One of these challenges is overcoming the stereotypes about North Korea and the North Korean people.
In the latest episode of The Red Box, our North Korean friends and 2019 LiNK Advocacy Fellows talk about the struggle of of facing stereotypes after resettling in South Korea.
Watch as Jeongyol, Joy, Dasom, and Ilhyeok answer your questions in The Red Box Series!
Read the transcript of this episode below!
All: Welcome to the Red Box!
Are there any misunderstandings about the North Korean people that make you feel uncomfortable?
Joy: When I first came to South Korea, was working part-time at a convenience store. I was still very young and had a very heavy North Korean accent.
In South Korea, when a customer enters the part-time employees don't really greet them. But I used to greet the customers standing and say "Welcome!" so people would ask me where I'm from.
I'd tell them that I'm from North Korea. They'd say "oh really?" After they get their stuff and put them on the counter, they'd asked me if I ever had jjajangmyun or pork in North Korea? They'd ask me these types of questions. Some people ask because they don't know but sometimes they ask questions that insinuate that we were all so poor in North Korea. Not everyone in North Korea is like that. There's people who live well too
Jeongyol: If someone asked me that, I’d tell them I might've lived a wealthier life there [in North Korea].
Joy: So those types of questions made me feel a little uncomfortable.
Jeongyol: A lot of people think like that.
Dasom: People think that all North Koreans are poor, ignorant, and uneducated. People have told me that even though I must have starved and lived poorly in North Korea, I don't look the part.
Maybe some people did or didn't have enough food to eat. There are poor people and there are rich people too. Every country is the same — it’s the same in South Korea too. There are rich, poor, and homeless people in South Korea too. I don't think it's right to judge someone like that. It made me feel very uncomfortable
Jeongyol: When I was in high school, there was a soccer match between North Korea and South Korea. But all of a sudden they asked me which team I'm cheering for. So I was startled by the question.
Should I say I'm cheering for North Korea or South Korea? What's my identity?
Even though I'm living in South Korea as a South Korean citizen, they didn't recognize the fact that I'm also South Korean. That we were the same people.
So at the time I answered, "I'm not cheering for either team. I don't care who wins. I’m just watching the game for fun.” It went over smoothly but afterward I kept thinking about it. But now that I think about it…It wasn't my choice to be born in North Korea.
Jeongyol: I could've been born in the U.S. but somehow I was born in North Korea.
Anyone could've been born in North Korea.
It's not anyone's fault. So from that moment on, I became confident. I am just who I am.
Ilhyeok: I have this older friend from China. During holidays like in January, he'd always ask me if I am visiting my hometown. Whenever he asks me that question, I want to be able to tell him that I'm am going [home] but I can't because I can't go back so I just don’t answer him. When he asked me if I'm going home, I just wished that I could return home one day.
It's heartbreaking not being able to go home.
During Chuseok and New Year's Day, those two holidays are when I miss home the most.
Joy: One uncomfortable question for me was when I was in school or met people was when they asked me why there's no riot or uprising in North Korea. Sometimes people ask because they really don't know but sometimes they insinuate that we're cowards.
And with that viewpoint, they ask why we won't revolt against the government. I try to explain but they still insist and say, ”But you guys still should have done something.” That makes me a little sad.
In North Korea, there's a system of monitoring each other. So if one person says something bad, they'd get reported right away and taken.
Jeongyol: In South Korea there were a lot of civil riots so they ask why we didn't do anything in North Korea.
Joy: But it's a very different situation.
Jeongyol: The system doesn't allow it.
What also made me uncomfortable was if I did something wrong, people would blame it because I'm North Korean.
They say things like, “It's because she's North Korean.” That made me upset. Other people say bad things and make mistakes too. But because of one mistake they say all North Koreans are like that and that I wouldn't know things or be able to do things because I'm from North Korea.
I hated hearing that so I wouldn't tell anyone that I was from North Korea.