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.
Squid Game and the Stories of North Korean Defectors
**Warning: Contains plot spoilers
Netflix’s Squid Game has taken the world by storm, becoming the platform’s most-watched show debut and infiltrating popular culture. The high-stakes thriller juxtaposes nostalgic kid’s games with brutal consequences, hooking viewers with a compelling cast and pointed social commentary.
One of Squid Game’s most captivating characters is Kang Sae-byeok, a tough-as-nails North Korean defector who wants nothing more than to reunite her family. While she and her little brother managed to safely reach South Korea, their father was killed during the border crossing and mother was captured.
Sae-byeok’s story reflects the real experiences of the North Korean refugees we work with who have risked everything for freedom. Many were separated from family, have little support when resettling, and face prejudice.
The Perils of Defecting
Crossing the heavily guarded border between North and South Korea is virtually impossible. Instead, refugees must escape through China and journey 3000 miles through a modern-day-underground-railroad to safety in Southeast Asia. This has only become more difficult with pandemic-related restrictions on movement and border lockdowns.
If caught fleeing North Korea or arrested in China, which doesn’t recognize defectors as refugees, North Koreans will be sent back and face harsh punishment - brutal beatings, forced labor, and even internment in a political prison camp.
This is the reality that people like Sae-byeok’s mother face.
Still, thousands of North Koreans have risked everything to seek a better life. An estimated 33,000 refugees have resettled in South Korea.
“I wasn’t sure if I would see my family again because of the possibility of getting caught while escaping to China. Before I left, I got some opium and carried it underneath the collar of my shirt so I could take it to kill myself in case I got caught.”
- Joy, escaped through LiNK’s networks in 2013
Continue reading Joy’s story to freedom here.
Once they reach safety and begin their new lives, refugees face a new set of challenges. Some have described the experience as stepping out of a time machine, 50 years into the future. Amidst figuring out the everyday intricacies of modern life, many refugees are still coping with the trauma of their past.
In addition to struggling to make ends meet, Sae-byeok faces social pressure and stigma as a North Korean. She deliberately masks her North Korean accent around everyone except her brother and is subjected to remarks about being a “communist” and “spy.”
While it is not specified how her brother ended up in an orphanage, one can assume that Sae-byeok left him there in hopes that he’ll receive care and education that she cannot provide. Tragically, the difficulties of establishing a new life in South Korea separated her from her family once again.
“At first I struggled a lot. There were many times when I either didn’t understand South Koreans or they didn’t understand me due to our different accents and words...Another difficulty was loneliness…I still feel lonely from time to time. I really miss my family.”
- Hae-Sun, rescued while hiding in China in 2013
Read more from Hae-Sun’s experience starting a new life in South Korea here.
Working with Brokers
Hoping to bring her mother to South Korea, Sae-byeok was in contact with shady brokers who scammed her of her money. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to fund these risky escapes, especially directly out of North Korea, and then from China to Southeast Asia.
With the prize money from the games, Sae-byeok hoped to reunite her family and live under one roof again.
This is Not Where the Story Ends
Working with the right people who can help safely smuggle people across borders is the real deal. Liberty in North Korea helps North Korean refugees escape safely through a modern-day underground railroad, without ANY cost or condition.*LiNK’s rescue efforts begin in China
LiNK reunites families, supports their new lives in resettlement, and helps individuals, like Sae-byeok, reach their full potential in freedom.
When LiNK’s field staffer told me I was finally safe, I was overwhelmed. I had endured so much to make it this far - hard labor, imprisonment, and torture. And even though I was overjoyed to make it to freedom, I was deeply saddened that [my daughter] Hee-Mang wasn’t with me… I hold onto the dream that one day we will live together again.”
- Jo-Eun, escaped North Korea through LiNK’s network in 2018
Read the story of Jo-Eun’s journey to freedom here.
When North Koreans successfully resettle, they become some of the most effective agents of change on the issue by sharing their stories with the world and sending money and information back to their families in North Korea.
Kang Sae-byeok’s story has come to an end, but you can do something to stand with the North Korean people today.
→ Watch undercover footage from real rescue missions.
→ Read more stories from North Korean refugees.
→ Donate to make rescue missions possible.