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.”
North Korean Agents of Change | Seohyun’s Story
It was an ordinary taxi ride. The driver struck up a casual conversation, commenting about the weather, asking what I do. At some point I shared that I was from North Korea- after two years studying abroad in China, I was used to the curiosity that typically followed.
But instead, the driver pointed to a picture of Deng Xiaoping on his rear view mirror. He explained how China was able to open up, reform, and get out of poverty. Then he asked, very pointedly, “why hasn’t your leader done the same thing, and left the people to starve?”
That was the moment when over two decades of brainwashing finally began to unravel.
My name is Seohyun Lee and I’m an advocate for the North Korean people. I was born and raised in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. This is my story.
I had the unique opportunity to study in China because of my father’s position and commitment to the regime. He was a high-ranking overseas economic officer, and was allowed to bring his children if he could afford all living expenses and tuition. At first, my brother and I alternated our time in China- one member of the family always had to stay behind as a hostage. But in 2010, the regime adopted a more open policy that allowed entire families to be together, so we were all finally reunited.
Growing up in Pyongyang, the circle of elites was very small. Every so often, you’d hear about a family that was sent to a political prison camp because someone’s son or daughter acted out of line. I restrained myself from an early age because I knew my actions and words could threaten the safety of my loved ones.
So even after learning the truth about North Korea, there was not much I could do. I hoped that because Kim Jong Un was a younger guy who had also studied abroad in Switzerland, our generation could change North Korea with more open-minded leadership. But it turned out to be even worse than before.
My fondest memories in China are with my roommate, another North Korean exchange student. She was my best friend and like a big sister to me. We traveled, shopped, and shared many delicious meals together. When I was sick with the flu, she took me to the hospital and stayed by my side until my IV was finished. During those years, she was like another part of me.
I’ll never forget the last time I saw her. I watched helplessly as she was forcefully taken from our dorm room by North Korean officers. Her father was executed for being associated with Kim Jong Un’s uncle, and she was sent to a political prison camp with the rest of her family.
That day, my eyes were opened to the brutality of the regime. To them, we were just like batteries to be thrown away when used up. Our lives never mattered.
I miss her so much. I really want to believe that she’s still alive, and one day I can meet her again.
What happened to my roommate was not an isolated incident. Starting in 2013, there were countless executions and purges happening in North Korea under the Kim Jong Un regime. My family and I lost many friends, neighbors, and respected colleagues. While dealing with great loss, we also knew that at any moment, we could be next.
It was a crisp fall evening. My family and I drove to a park and left our phones in the car. We walked until we were out of earshot, and finally talked openly about what we should do.
My father worked hard because he had hope that improving the economy would better the lives of the people. But we realized that under the current system, what he desired was not possible. So in order to save ourselves and also bring change to the country, we decided to leave in October 2014.
My dad still has a huge heart for North Korea. But I want to make sure that his love for the country is separated from being loyal to the regime. Back in North Korea, he worked tirelessly for a better future for the people. Today, he’s working towards the day where every North Korean has guaranteed human rights and three meals a day.
Like a lot of Asian parents, my father is not good at outwardly expressing affection. The way it manifests is through constant nagging. I didn't get it when I was young, but as I’ve gotten older, I now understand that's how he shows his love and care for us.
There have been moments when I’ve wished I was born in a different country. But when I think about my family, I never regret it.
My dad has been our foundation, my mom is the most thoughtful and perfect woman I know, and my brother has always looked out for me. We all love and support each other, especially after going through so much together.
This fall, I started my graduate studies at Columbia University. I never imagined that I would be chasing my dreams here in America. I hope to use everything I learn to bring a better future for the North Korean people, even after they become free from the current regime.
When my family and I left China, we came here not only to save ourselves, but with ambitions to change the system and bring freedom. Many people have not been as lucky as I have, so I feel it is my privilege and obligation to be a voice for my fellow North Koreans. I believe many of them are already opening their minds to the outside world.
We need to let them know that there’s a global movement of people who have their backs, and we can’t wait for them to be free.
It’s #GivingTuesday, the year’s biggest day of generosity! As we work towards creating the best version of our world, we’re making sure it’s one where every North Korean is free.
Your support will allow us to continue investing in North Korean agents of change - people like Seohyun - who are leading this movement and transforming one of the most repressive countries in the world.
Through access to English language programs, mentorship, scholarships, and more, you can help us support more North Korean refugees as they pursue their dreams and impact this issue.