From North Korea to the Oval Office: A North Korean Defector Advocates for Religious Freedom
This past summer, you may have spotted Ill Yong Joo, a North Korean activist, at the White House meeting with the President. Ill Yong was a LiNK Advocacy Fellow last year! The LiNK Advocacy Fellows program prepares and empowers the next generation of North Korean leaders, advocates, and analysts on this issue. Ill Yong took what he learned during his time at LiNK and traveled to the White House to advocate for the North Korean people. During his trip to the White House, he advocated for the North Korean people’s religious freedom as part of the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the U.S. State Department.Interview edited for clarity and length.
What are you doing right now?
Ill Yong: Right now, I’m a senior studying Political Science and International Relations at Korea University. I also work for ‘One King, One Korea’ which is a missionary group for North Koreans. My main goal is to focus on working to improve North Korea’s situation and following the path that God has prepared for me.
You were a LiNK Advocacy Fellow last year.
What did that experience mean to you?
Ill Yong: LiNK AF was like a “booster” for me. I knew that I wanted to do something for my friends in North Korea, but I wasn't sure what or how to take action. And if I did do something, I didn’t know if I could influence or make an impact for the people. But through the Advocacy Fellows program, I became sure of my identity as an advocate for the North Korean people.When I toured the U.S. as an Advocacy Fellow and I saw the way American young people hung onto every word of my story, I realized that I had to continue doing this work. I was sure of it. Because this experience helped me move forward towards this dream, I like to say that being an AF in a word was a “booster” for me.
What was the experience going to the White House like?
Ill Yong: It was an honor and I was grateful for the experience. However, my heart was heavy because I carried the message of the pain of North Koreans.
I was there because of the heartbreaking pain and stories of my people.
It was a pity I could only speak to President Trump for a moment, but I hope that even though it was short, my message moved President Trump's heart. I pray that the work or policy the President carries out will not be for the North Korean regime, but for the lives of the North Korean people.
What message did you want to give to the President?
Ill Yong: I wanted to inform him about the situation of my people being persecuted for religious reasons in North Korea. I wanted him to know that not only my family but many other people, especially Christians, are oppressed for religious reasons.Many people judge North Korea based on only Kim Jong-Un, but I want to tell everyone that within North Korea, the North Korean people want freedom, have achieved some freedom on their own, and now we must empower their restoration of freedom.
Want to learn more about Ill Yong’s journey from a small North Korean farming village to studying to become a human rights lawyer? Watch our latest video interview with him.
Humans of North Korea: This is freedom
I got foreign media from my dad. He was a member of the Korean Workers Party and many of his friends were security agents. They confiscated a lot of foreign media and gave it to my dad and he would bring it home.
Some of my most vivid memories are getting together with my friends at someone’s house, shutting off all the lights, and secretly watching South Korean dramas. It was exhilarating. If you heard anything outside, you’d get startled and think,
“Did they come to arrest us? Are we going to jail now?” It was thrilling doing things we knew we shouldn’t do.
Everything portrayed in the South Korean dramas was so clean and everyone seemed so wealthy. I used to think “Wow, there is such a world out there.” We were taught that South Korea was a poor country but I wondered, “Why can’t we live like that?”
I wanted to wear clothes from the dramas but I couldn’t find them anywhere. We used to get a lot of used clothes from the market down by the harbor. You either find used clothes or fabric and have a tailor make the outfit for you. After three or four days of wearing a new style, everyone would be wearing the same thing because it looked so cool.
My designs were very popular. If I started wearing something new, there was always someone who would wear similarly styled clothes because the number of South Korean dramas that inspired us was so limited. Girls would ask me where I got my clothes and if I wanted to exchange outfits. Bartering was very common and sometimes they’d offer their more expensive clothes in exchange for mine.
But you had to look out for the Inspection Unit. If they caught you wearing jeans and a hoodie, they’d cut the bottom of the jeans with scissors. My sister and brother were older than me so their friends were sometimes in the Inspection Unit. If I knew the person, I would just tell them, “I’ll go change right now” or “I’ll give you these jeans but please don’t cut the bottoms off” and I would go get it back from them later.
The regime doesn’t want people wearing those kinds of clothes. I think it’s because things like jeans symbolize freedom. North Korean society is so restricted that if they allowed jeans there would be no end to what people would want to wear.
Even now in South Korea, every time I put on a pair of jeans I think, “This is freedom.”
- Jihyun Kang escaped North Korea in 2009. She now works in the fashion industry in Seoul.