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.
Time Travelers: North Korean Defectors Resettling in South Korea
To reach freedom, North Korean defectors typically brave a perilous 3,000 mile journey through China and Southeast Asia. But even after finally reaching safety, they face a long road ahead as they begin their new lives.
The majority of North Korean refugees have resettled in South Korea. Many describe the transition like stepping out of a time machine, 50 years into the future. In addition to learning about things like the internet and ATMs, getting used to their newfound freedom alone can be a lot to grasp after decades of living in the world’s most authoritarian country.
A new journey, one of restoration, discovery, and adjustment, begins.
When North Korean refugees first reach South Korea, they go through a thorough debrief process with the National Intelligence Service to verify their background. From there, the Hanawon Settlement Support Center helps them ease into modern South Korean society.
Every defector must complete a three month adjustment program, which covers:
- Basic skills, like how to open a bank account and use the Internet
- Job and vocational training
- Field trips to shops, food courts, and other businesses
- The social and cultural differences between North and South Korea
- The history of the Korean peninsula
After completing the program, refugees receive government benefits to begin their new lives, including an initial subsidy, housing support, and healthcare.
South Korean Culture Shock
Emerging from Hanawon, North Korean refugees often experience culture shock when they find themselves fully immersed in South Korean society.
One of the first things many notice is the abundance of greenery and trees compared to North Korea. While the entire Korean peninsula was severely deforested by the mid-20th century, South Korea is one of the world’s few reforestation success stories.
Many defectors are also surprised by how safe South Korea is. One person can manage a big market stall on their own and not worry about theft, whereas goods have to be closely guarded at North Korea’s Jangmadangs. Other new experiences include the widespread availability of clothing and existence of vending machines and mannequins.
While the South Korean government provides material support, many North Korean refugees still face challenges starting over in a very different society. Just navigating daily life can be difficult at first, and making longer-term decisions like what to study or finding a stable job can be even more overwhelming.
“When I first arrived in South Korea, I was confused and didn’t know where to even start my new life in freedom. I wasn’t even sure who I was as a person.”
– Geumju, escaped North Korea in 2008
At school, additional study may be needed to catch up with their South Korean peers after decades of propaganda-based learning. In the workforce, many refugees have to retrain and re-qualify for the same jobs they had in the North, such as doctors and teachers. These discrepancies have contributed to an income gap between North and South Koreans in South Korea’s hyper competitive society.
In addition to figuring out the future, many refugees are still coping with physical and mental health issues from a traumatic past. A lack of healthcare in North Korea often results in decades of unaddressed medical and dental problems. Roughly 50% of North Korean refugees also suffer from PTSD. Many had to leave loved ones behind, witnessed or experienced torture, or survived trafficking, which can be tough to process.
Finding Community & Onward
Forming new relationships in South Korea can be one of the biggest challenges for defectors. In North Korea, lack of mobility and aspects of life organized by the regime meant that everyone in a neighborhood knew each other. To meet up with someone, it was commonplace to just stop by their home. In comparison, South Korea’s decentralized “yaksok” (promise) culture of scheduling a time and place to meet specific people may feel unfamiliar and take extra effort.
Refugees may also not want to reveal that they’re from North Korea or can have trouble sharing past experiences. Some may also experience prejudice against North Koreans for their accent or stereotypes, such as being uneducated or untrustworthy.
Overall, although life in freedom brings many advantages and benefits, it comes with some unexpected challenges. Before their escape, North Koreans may have only heard good things or focused on the positives. Moving to a foreign place and building a new life from scratch is difficult for anyone, and can be especially challenging for North Korean refugees.
Impact of the Pandemic
During the pandemic, refugee numbers have been at an all time low. Unprecedented restrictions on movement and surveillance have made the journey through China and Southeast Asia almost impossible.
On the resettlement side, refugees have also struggled as some support programs were scaled back or cut altogether. Many have felt especially lonely during this time or found it difficult to work towards their goals.
Agents of Change
Despite all odds, North Korean refugees are some of the most powerful examples of human resilience. When they have the support they need to successfully resettle in freedom, they can become some of the most effective agents of change on this issue.
Defectors are embracing and taking pride in their identity, sharing their stories on the global stage as YouTubers, entrepreneurs, and advocates. When they reclaim the narrative on North Koreans, they directly challenge the regime’s portrayal of their country.
North Korean refugees also have the unique opportunity to affect change inside North Korea through remittances. Many maintain contact with their home communities and send money back to their families, helping people inside and accelerating change at the ground level.
The Support of a Movement
Reaching freedom is just the first step. LiNK is dedicated to working with North Korean refugees to help build their capacity and realize their full potential in their new lives! We do this by:
- Organizing workshops for entrepreneurship, advocacy, and more
- Facilitating a 1:1 English tutoring program
- Sponsoring scholarships for North Korean students pursuing higher education
- Providing a community of ongoing support and resources
“I’m touched by LiNK’s supporters. I can feel their genuine heart. Before I learned more about LiNK, I just thought that I came out through a rescue network. I never imagined that so many people have been rooting for us and that it’s a bigger movement than just rescues. Now that I know all of you helped us with kind hearts, I want to succeed and do good things for others in South Korea.”
– Yuna, escaped through LiNK’s networks and resettled in 2021