Blog - Liberty in North Korea

An Exclusive Interview With LiNK’s Field Manager

June 22, 2020

Over 1,200 North Korean refugees have reached freedom through our secret rescue routes. Michael Kim* is LiNK’s Field Manager and has overseen dozens of rescue missions, helping hundreds of these refugees safely reach freedom. Here is an exclusive interview with Michael, only for Liberty Donors like you! *Name changed for security reasons

Why did you want to work on the North Korean issue? 

Michael: I went to university in South Korea and there I met North Koreans for the first time. I became really good friends with them without knowing they were from North Korea. As we grew closer, I grew more aware and informed. I also studied Political Science and International Relations, so I wanted to be more involved in the North Korean issue..

After college I went to serve in the South Korean military. The mandatory military service is a constant reminder of the “other” Korea – a Korea where people have drastically different living standards. Basically everything you do in the military is preparing for a potential war with North Korea. They were seen as “the enemy.” But I had friends who were from North Korea. I realized I should do something to change the situation on the Korean peninsula.

What made you want to work in the field?

Michael: I planned to go to graduate school but then a position in the field opened. I realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a really meaningful role. I ultimately decided to apply because I trusted LiNK and the work. It was a special opportunity because I would get to meet North Korean refugees during the most vulnerable state of their journeys and represent LiNK and the supporters who care about them. 

What is the hardest part of your job?

Michael: It’s hands down the isolation. For security reasons, we can’t be open about our work. In Southeast Asia, we meet people but can’t reveal why we’re there or what we do. We have to come up with cover stories and when people ask too many questions, we shut them down. “Ah it’s just work. It’s boring. You don’t want to know.” It makes it hard to build meaningful connections outside of work. 

Sometimes it takes a toll. Because there are times you do want to share your life with people. But this is why the field team is so close. Everyone shares everything so it’s like a family. 

What is your favorite part of the job?

Michael: Meeting our North Korean friends. When we meet, we tell them, “We’re honored to meet you.” And we mean it. We’re thankful and thrilled they made it this far and had the courage to seek freedom.

When you meet North Korean refugees in the field, what do they need the most? 

Michael: When we meet them in person for the first time, they’re physically and mentally exhausted because of the long and dangerous journey they just went through. The fact that they made it to Southeast Asia is such a feat.

We focus on three things. 

First, we want to support them physically and mentally. We make sure they get rest and create a safe space for them to recuperate.Even just meeting us gives the North Korean refugees a sense of relief. Throughout their journeys, they get directions over the phone or through people to go to pick up spots. So when they reach the final destination and hear the South Korean accent for the first time, it’s like a sign of freedom. They’ve only heard the accent in South Korean movies and dramas.Many of them have not been able to speak their native language freely since they left North Korea so they can finally relax and speak freely. As they share their journeys with us, we build personal relationships with them and it gives them so much encouragement and support.

Second, we do a quality control check. We ask them if anyone on their journey demanded money from them or treated them without dignity or respect. Because of our donor’s generous support refugees do not have to pay to be rescued by LiNK and we want to ensure refugees were not asked to pay by anyone on their route. 

Lastly, we give them information. We let them know what to expect during the resettlement process and answer their questions. In some cases, refugees don’t know where they’re going because they’re trying to reunite with family members. We try to fill in the blanks and help them gain a fuller picture of what’s next.

Cake ceremony celebrating the newfound freedom of North Korean refugees

What are some questions you get from North Korean refugees?

Michael: If there’s a refugee who just left North Korea, they might ask really random questions. Everything is so new to them. They ask about the traffic lights or the names of trees in Southeast Asia. Many of them want to learn how to speak in a South Korean accent. 

They also ask really pragmatic questions like, “What should I do in South Korea to make money so that I can bring my children out of North Korea?” This is a really common question.

One question someone asked was, “Can I travel abroad? And how long can I do that before the government wants me back in the country?” We explain to them that as long as they have a visa to the country they’re going, the South Korean government doesn’t care how long they’re gone!

What are surprising things you hear from North Korean refugees about North Korea?

Michael: The living conditions in North Korea are so bad. It shouldn’t surprise us anymore but every time you hear about it, it’s not easy. For example, they tell us that they were working for the government but were basically forced into slave labor. They’re doing this hard labor but they’re not getting paid by the government. In order to survive, they have to do something on the side. 

Another grim reality is military life. North Korean men have to serve 10 years in the military and it’s not like life is easy there. People have said that they defected because they think about their little boys' futures. They know that once their son turns 18, he has to go to the military. By the time he returns, he’ll be 30. And they will miss out on all their time together. 

What do most North Korean refugees want to do once they reach freedom?

Michael: It depends. Parents just want a better future for their children. Most people really want to learn. They’re hungry for knowledge. They want to learn how things are outside of North Korea and in the world. When we ask them what they want to do, most will tell you that “I don't know enough to know what I want. I just want to go there and see what options I have.”

What field experience has stayed with you?

Michael: Refugees don’t fully grasp the idea of having donors supporting the North Korean people unconditionally. They end up asking, “What do they really get out of this? Why are they doing this? Is this the government?” It’s really hard to understand that individuals on the other side of the world care enough to support them. 

But occasionally, we have people who fully understand and they feel so moved and inspired that they in turn want to participate in this movement. And that is really powerful. Seeing them go from a position of getting help to wanting to do something is always powerful to witness. It’s one thing to be grateful, but it’s another to say, “Now it’s my turn. Once I get to South Korea, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to find ways to contribute.” They tell us that our work has opened their minds and they want to help. 

Is there anything you want to say to our donors?

Michael: We can solely focus on what is best for the North Korean refugees only because we have so many generous people who support what we’re doing in the field. We do our best to be good stewards, but the fact that we can just focus on our work and what we can do better instead of worrying about funding is liberating. Because we’re in the field, we don’t really get to meet donors, but everything that we do - it reminds us that it’s only possible because of our donors and their support.  We feel the support and we are so grateful!

Thanks to your monthly gift, Michael and his team are able to help rescue North Korean refugees at a moment’s notice. We’re so thankful for your continued support! Thank you for standing alongside the North Korean people!

Foreign Media in North Korea - How Kpop is Challenging the Regime

April 22, 2022

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.

Popular South Korean drama Crash Landing on You. Photo credit: Netflix and IMDb.

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.

North Korea is technologically isolated from the world

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.

A representation of how North Koreans watch illegal foreign media

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.

North Korean woman with phone. Photo credit: Eric Lafforgue.

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.

North Koreans watching a Korean drama on a laptop

“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.

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