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.
Foreign Media in North Korea - How Kpop is Challenging the Regime
Movies, TV shows, and music hold power. They’re a way for us to connect through common experiences, reckon with different sides of humanity, and revel in the beauty of being here at all. They transport us to another time and place- perhaps one of our imaginations- and most importantly, allow us to dream and imagine a limitless future.
In recent years, South Korean media and entertainment has gained international recognition. People like Hyun Bin and Son Yejin, the stars of popular Korean drama Crash Landing on You, have become household names, while Parasite swept the 2020 Academy Awards and music from K-pop groups like BTS are charting globally.
Meanwhile, just across the border, North Korea remains one of the most closed societies in the world. Yet even in the “hermit kingdom,” foreign media is accelerating empowerment of the people and change within the country!
Forced Isolation and the Regime’s Information Monopoly
The North Korean government has maintained power for decades through a system of imposed isolation, relentless indoctrination, and brutal repression. A complete monopoly on information and ideas within the country has been key- outside media threatens to challenge the legitimacy of their propaganda, and by extension, their control.
The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea reported an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as well as of the rights to freedom of speech, opinion, expression, and association.
The regime employs a range of strategies to enforce information control:
- Restricting movement across borders and within the country
- Random house searches
- Severe punishment, including public executions, to deter foreign media consumption and sharing
- Sophisticated digital surveillance
- Jamming phone signals and locating users through signal triangulation
- Mobile OS file signature system that only permits government-approved apps and files
The Spread of Foreign Media
Despite this isolation and unparalleled internal restrictions, the North Korean people have been quietly changing their country from within, including through foreign media access. Through market activity and the movement of people and goods across the Chinese border, they have forced the gradual opening up of their society. Movies and music are smuggled into the country on USBs, SD and MicroSD cards, and small portable media players, offering illicit access to information from the outside world.
With lights off and windows shuttered, North Koreans will watch foreign media despite the risks. If all else fails, bribes are a way for people to reduce punishment if caught. Most North Korean police and government officials rely on bribes to survive, and some defectors complain that they are actually the biggest consumers of foreign media because they confiscate so much.
Information Technology in North Korea
Within North Korea, a broad range of information technologies are available, although they should be registered with authorities. Laptops and computers officially run on a government operating system, Red Star OS, while the North Korean intranet, Kwangmyong, is air-gapped from the internet and heavily surveilled. However, in practice, many North Koreans have non-networked devices used for games, editing software, watching videos, and to copy, delete and transfer media on removable devices.
Mobile phones are also common with approximately 6 million on the North Korean network, meaning roughly 1 in 4 people have one. These North Korean phones generally cannot make international calls and the operating system limits users to approved state media (programs have been developed to bypass this security). On the other hand, smuggled Chinese phones can be used in border regions on the Chinese network. These have been crucial for staying in touch with relatives who have escaped or defected, who often send back money and information from the outside world.
Radios are the only channel of foreign media and news available real-time across the country. While they should officially be registered and fixed to North Korean stations, it is relatively easy to tamper with radio sets to pick up foreign broadcasts. In border regions, some TVs can also pick up live programming from South Korea and China. Traditionally, TVs were connected to DVD players, but newer LCD televisions also have direct USB input ports.
How Foreign Media Changes Perceptions
Among foreign media, entertainment from South Korea is particularly attractive, produced in the same base language by people with the same ancestry. They contain glimpses of rich and free realities just across the border. In comparison, domestic North Korean media seems old-fashioned and disingenuous, designed to reinforce the regime’s ideologies.
As North Koreans learn more about life, freedom and prosperity in the outside world, and their own relative poverty, the regime’s ideology and control are eroded.
“At first you see the cars, apartment buildings, and markets and you think it must be a movie set. But the more you watch, there’s no way it can be just a set. If you watch one or two [movies] it always raises these doubts, and if you keep watching you know for sure. You realize how well South Koreans and other foreigners live.”
- Danbi, escaped North Korea in 2011
Empowered by foreign media, North Koreans are exploring their creativity and potential through everyday acts of resistance- using South Korean slang, copying fashion styles, and sharing pop culture references. In this culture war, Kim Jong-un has called for crackdowns on "unsavory, individualistic, anti-socialist behavior" among young people to restrict freedom of expression.
Foreign media also facilitates shared acts of resistance. People will swap USB devices with trusted friends and neighbors, increasing confidence in one another through a symmetrical transaction. Some people may also watch and discuss movies and shows together, increasing the media’s subversive influence and creating social networks.
The Regime’s Response
During the pandemic, we’ve seen unprecedented levels of isolation and restrictions, closing off the country more than ever before. To buttress control, Kim Jong Un has simultaneously increased crackdowns and punishments on foreign media consumption. In December 2020, the “anti-reactionary thought law” made watching foreign media punishable by 15 years in a political prison camp.
While the situation is harrowing, the government’s extreme response underscores the power of foreign media. The regime recognizes that social changes driven by North Korean people are a threat to their authority and control in the long term.
Accelerating Foreign Media Access and Change
Moving forward, increasing access to outside information is one of the most effective ways to help the North Korean people and bring forward change.
Information and technology support for North Korean people has historically been an under-utilized and under-invested strategy. LiNK Labs is our area of work focused on this opportunity- we’re developing technologies, networks, and content to empower North Korean people with access to information and ideas from the outside world.