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!

How A North Korean Defector Sends Money Back Home

August 25, 2022

It may seem like North and South Korea are completely cut off from each other, but even after decades of separation, channels of communication persist. Defectors who have made it to freedom are bridging the gap, connecting people inside North Korea to the world beyond. Through extensive broker networks, they send back money and information, accelerating change in the world’s most authoritarian country.

Through this process known as remittances, millions of dollars are sent into the country every year, representing huge spending power. Here’s how they do it!

North Korean refugees can send money to their families back home

Reconnecting with Family

To send money back home, North Korean refugees must first contact their families. They hire brokers to find their relatives and arrange illicit phone calls close to the border with China, where smuggled Chinese cell phones can connect to international networks. In North Korea, people are often wary of such brokers, so they may have to be convinced with codewords or childhood nicknames that only the family would know, or recognizable handwriting and photos.

To avoid being caught, contact is often made from the mountain at night, or using a series of text or voice messages sent through apps like Wechat and quickly deleted. When the call finally happens, it can be emotional for both sides.

“You hear someone say, ‘Okay you’re connected, you can speak now.’ But no one says anything to each other. You just hear a high-pitched tone, and silence. Could this be real? You’re just crying, and can’t even speak.”

– Miso, escaped North Korea in 2010

How Remittances Work

There are different ways to send money to North Korea, but a simple version involves three parties: A North Korean resettled in South Korea, a remittance broker in North Korea, and the recipient in North Korea.  

  1. A resettled North Korean, makes a request to a remittance broker to arrange a transfer. They wire money to a Chinese account controlled by that broker. 
  2. The remittance broker in North Korea uses a smuggled Chinese phone to confirm receipt of the funds.
  3. After taking a hefty commission, they give cash to the refugee’s family. The family can confirm receipt of the money by sending a photo, video, or voice message back, so the sender can be confident that they’ve not been scammed.

With this process, the remittance broker in North Korea occasionally needs to replenish their cash on hand. This could happen through the physical smuggling of cash, but oftentimes money from their Chinese bank account is used to buy goods in China that are then sold in North Korea, generating cash. In this way, physical money never actually has to cross borders.

How North Korean refugees send money back into the country

The Power to Change Lives

North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, whereas South Korea is one of the richest. Therefore remittances from relatives in South Korea or elsewhere can be absolutely transformative. The money is spent on almost everything, including food, clothing, shoes, medicine, housing, transport, and bribes to keep the family safe.

“I’ve sent money back to North Korea ever since I resettled in South Korea. I send an average of $1,500 a year. My parents used the money to buy a house! They’re also going to use it to help my younger brother escape and come to South Korea.”

– Jeonghyuk, resettled North Korean refugee

With new resources also comes new opportunities. North Koreans who never had the means before can now think about starting a business at the Jangmadang, or market. Since the collapse of the regime’s socialist economy in the 1990s, the markets have become essential to making a living. The flow of remittances is increasing trade, food security, marketization, and entrepreneurship, empowering ordinary North Koreans to gain autonomy.

North Koreans engaging in market activity and entrepreneurship. Photo credit: Eric Lafforgue.

A Ripple Effect

Along with money, North Korean refugees send back news and information from the outside world. At first, family members back home may not want to hear about life beyond the border. Decades of propaganda villainizing the outside world can be difficult to overcome, and if caught in communication with defectors, they could face serious punishment.

But as money continues to flow in, many people can’t help but be curious- what do their relatives outside do to make a living? What kind of house do they live in? Is life there like the K-dramas smuggled into North Korea? Conversely, defectors ask their family members, what they can do with the money in North Korea? This exchange of information is incredibly valuable, providing a glimpse into the most closed society on earth.

Resettled North Korean refugee, Geum Ju, living in South Korea as a florist

The flow of information into North Korea erodes the regime’s propaganda and changes worldviews. As the people learn more about the wealth and opportunities of the outside world, some may also risk their lives to escape. Money sent from remittances can also be used to fund this dangerous journey.

“When I first contacted my family back in North Korea after I resettled in South Korea, they didn’t believe that I was doing well here. My parents even resented me a little for leaving. But after I sent them money and told them more about my life here, their views changed. Now they realize that the regime has been lying to them and they’re not as loyal anymore. I have become a pioneer of freedom to my family back in North Korea.”

– Jo Eun, rescued by LiNK in 2017

Jo Eun, resettled in South Korea

Agents of Change

Remittances are about more than just the movement of money. Refugees who have been separated from their families aren’t able to go back home themselves, but can still care for their loved ones in some way. Every phone call into the country and every dollar sent back represents one small step towards the day when the North Korean people finally achieve their freedom. 

More than 33,000 North Korean refugees have made it to freedom, and although it has become more difficult during the pandemic, surveys report that 65.7% have sent money back to North Korea. At LiNK, we’re committed to working with and building the capacity of North Korean refugees so they can succeed in their new lives and make an even bigger impact in their communities and on this issue. 

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