I went to Southeast Asia to see where LiNK’s Field Team rescues North Korean refugees. Here’s what I found…
Refugees must cross terrain like this to reach safety in Southeast Asia
We’re on a dirt road weaving around potholes.
On one side, the rice reaches to the horizon. On the other, corn stretches higher than the van.It feels like rural Iowa, but hotter and with palm trees.
The van lurches along, swaying back and forth with the ruts in the road. We’ve been driving for five hours through dense jungle and villages so small that you’d miss them if you blinked. It’s starting to seem like we’re in the middle of nowhere.
We finally coast to a stop and LiNK’s Field Manager points to a steep ravine.
“We’re here,” she says.
“We’ve rescued North Korean refugees right here,” she continues.
For the next hour we stop every couple hundred yards. She points to a field or a patch of trees and recounts stories.Stories of screeching to a stop, sliding open the door, and pulling North Korean refugees into the van.Stories of refugees so dehydrated they barely have the words to ask for water.
Stories of people collapsing in exhaustion, caked in mud and peppered with bruises from the long trek through the jungle.“What do refugees do once they’re in the van?” I ask.“Some start crying, the tears stream down their cheeks. They’re so overwhelmed that they finally made it. Others flash smiles in triumph, soaking in every second.”
I realize we’re not on just any dirt road.
This road meanders along the border. You can’t see the line but throw a stone in a certain direction and it’s likely to land in another country.For North Korean refugees this border means everything. Cross it, and they’re safe. The North Korean regime cannot have them arrested and forcibly returned.The danger is finally gone — evaporated in the sweltering heat and suffocating humidity of Southeast Asia.
For the first time in their entire lives: they are free.
It’s a week later and I’m sitting in an air-conditioned coffee shop that sells overpriced lattes.
I’m back in South Korea to interview a North Korean woman who reached freedom through LiNK’s rescue network.It took her four tries to make it to South Korea.She was arrested twice at the North Korean border and once in China. Each time the punishments seemed unimaginable, but they’re terrifyingly common.She recounts the horrific torture she endured for trying to escape. The way they slammed her head into a nail on the wall. The torment of witnessing cellmates whither away from starvation. The heartbreak of watching her 5-year old daughter being beaten in front of her.I’m trying hard to collect the facts. But hers is one of those stories that hollows you out. Leaving you nauseous and numb.The conversation dwindles. I can see the toll that sharing these stories are having. Her shoulders start to slump. She barely looks up to make eye contact anymore.I pull out my phone and show her a video. Her eyes flash with life.
20 seconds pass and she’s still glued to the phone.
It’s a video of that dirt road. And the exact place where she finally reached freedom. There are corn stalks on the left and a small farmhouse hidden behind palms leaves on the right.“Do you remember this place?” I ask.“How could I ever forget it?” she says without looking up.She’s smiling for the first time all afternoon.
The Red Box: Misunderstandings and Stereotypes about North Koreans
For North Korean refugees, resettling in a new society comes with many challenges. One of these challenges is overcoming the stereotypes about North Korea and the North Korean people.
In the latest episode of The Red Box, our North Korean friends and 2019 LiNK Advocacy Fellows talk about the struggle of of facing stereotypes after resettling in South Korea.
Watch as Jeongyol, Joy, Dasom, and Ilhyeok answer your questions in The Red Box Series!
Read the transcript of this episode below!
All: Welcome to the Red Box!
Are there any misunderstandings about the North Korean people that make you feel uncomfortable?
Joy: When I first came to South Korea, was working part-time at a convenience store. I was still very young and had a very heavy North Korean accent.
In South Korea, when a customer enters the part-time employees don't really greet them. But I used to greet the customers standing and say "Welcome!" so people would ask me where I'm from.
I'd tell them that I'm from North Korea. They'd say "oh really?" After they get their stuff and put them on the counter, they'd asked me if I ever had jjajangmyun or pork in North Korea? They'd ask me these types of questions. Some people ask because they don't know but sometimes they ask questions that insinuate that we were all so poor in North Korea. Not everyone in North Korea is like that. There's people who live well too
Jeongyol: If someone asked me that, I’d tell them I might've lived a wealthier life there [in North Korea].
Joy: So those types of questions made me feel a little uncomfortable.
Jeongyol: A lot of people think like that.
Dasom: People think that all North Koreans are poor, ignorant, and uneducated. People have told me that even though I must have starved and lived poorly in North Korea, I don't look the part.
Maybe some people did or didn't have enough food to eat. There are poor people and there are rich people too. Every country is the same — it’s the same in South Korea too. There are rich, poor, and homeless people in South Korea too. I don't think it's right to judge someone like that. It made me feel very uncomfortable
Jeongyol: When I was in high school, there was a soccer match between North Korea and South Korea. But all of a sudden they asked me which team I'm cheering for. So I was startled by the question.
Should I say I'm cheering for North Korea or South Korea? What's my identity?
Even though I'm living in South Korea as a South Korean citizen, they didn't recognize the fact that I'm also South Korean. That we were the same people.
So at the time I answered, "I'm not cheering for either team. I don't care who wins. I’m just watching the game for fun.” It went over smoothly but afterward I kept thinking about it. But now that I think about it…It wasn't my choice to be born in North Korea.
Jeongyol: I could've been born in the U.S. but somehow I was born in North Korea.
Anyone could've been born in North Korea.
It's not anyone's fault. So from that moment on, I became confident. I am just who I am.
Ilhyeok: I have this older friend from China. During holidays like in January, he'd always ask me if I am visiting my hometown. Whenever he asks me that question, I want to be able to tell him that I'm am going [home] but I can't because I can't go back so I just don’t answer him. When he asked me if I'm going home, I just wished that I could return home one day.
It's heartbreaking not being able to go home.
During Chuseok and New Year's Day, those two holidays are when I miss home the most.
Joy: One uncomfortable question for me was when I was in school or met people was when they asked me why there's no riot or uprising in North Korea. Sometimes people ask because they really don't know but sometimes they insinuate that we're cowards.
And with that viewpoint, they ask why we won't revolt against the government. I try to explain but they still insist and say, ”But you guys still should have done something.” That makes me a little sad.
In North Korea, there's a system of monitoring each other. So if one person says something bad, they'd get reported right away and taken.
Jeongyol: In South Korea there were a lot of civil riots so they ask why we didn't do anything in North Korea.
Joy: But it's a very different situation.
Jeongyol: The system doesn't allow it.
What also made me uncomfortable was if I did something wrong, people would blame it because I'm North Korean.
They say things like, “It's because she's North Korean.” That made me upset. Other people say bad things and make mistakes too. But because of one mistake they say all North Koreans are like that and that I wouldn't know things or be able to do things because I'm from North Korea.
I hated hearing that so I wouldn't tell anyone that I was from North Korea.