LiNK English Language Program: Meet the Students of Fall 2021
A consistently reported challenge we hear from North Korean defectors is English language ability, which is critical for both educational and career opportunities in South Korea. To address this need, we launched the LiNK English Language Program (LiNKglish)! Our North Korean friends have so much potential, and through capacity-building programs, they’re equipped and empowered to achieve their goals.
After a pilot Summer 2021 semester, we’re excited to share that our Fall 2021 semester served 49 North Korean students and 50 “English buddy” volunteers! Meet Hyang Lee and Jung Ok Choi, two of last semester’s students.
Can you briefly introduce yourself?
Hello, my name is Hyang Lee. I’m 26 years old and I’m majoring in business management. I just completed the program but because my English grades were low, I have not yet graduated.
I participated in LiNKglish for both summer and fall semesters. Through the program, I participated in several speech contests and received positive feedback every time, which gave me a lot of confidence. I still keep in touch with my buddy, communicating in English, and am working to complete my studies!
What were some of the most memorable moments in LiNKglish?
This semester, I was able to continue studying with the same English buddy that I had in the summer, Stephanie. I was really happy it worked out! I already knew what kind of person she was, and I felt very comfortable practicing English with her.
The best part was when I taught Stephanie how to read Korean. I would read out loud in English, and she’d read the Korean translation out loud. It made me feel quite proud of myself, that I was able to help someone and also learn English. Two-birds-one-stone, right? That was the most memorable moment for me.
Has communicating with your English buddy changed your perspective on foreigners?
Hmm… not necessarily. What I realized was that I really like America, but my buddy really loves Korea. It made me think, “maybe it’s because our cultures are so different, we like each other’s.”
When we chat about our everyday life, we often talk about food. We ask each other what we had for lunch, what types of food we’ve been eating, what famous restaurants we’ve visited. I told her that I felt like things were a lot saltier in the US, and she agreed. It was fun to ask questions and connect over both our similar experiences and differences.
What was your favorite meeting during LiNKglish?
I think it was our offline activity, the hiking day! It was our first time meeting in-person and I couldn’t sleep for 3 days prior, because I was so excited. Even though it was hard hiking up the mountain, I found myself speaking with the other students and volunteers the entire time. It was amazing. And when we got to the top, and looked down the mountain with everyone… it felt really great to be finally out and about.
Do you think your self-confidence has increased through LiNKglish?
For sure! I used to be afraid of communicating with foreigners, but now I’m confident I could talk to anyone in English. One time, I went to a clothing store and there was a foreigner trying to purchase an item. The store clerk didn’t speak English so I stepped in to help. It made me so happy that I was able to learn a language and help someone with it.
I actually got married last December. My husband and I plan to go overseas for missions in 7-8 years. I will have to use English so much more when I go overseas. I want to study hard and communicate in English as much as possible now, so that it will be easier for me when I go and do mission work.
Jung Ok Choi
Can you briefly introduce yourself?
Hello! I’m Jung Ok Choi from North Korea. I graduated from a four-year nursing college and I’m currently working as a nurse in a general hospital. I’ve been a nurse for the past 8 years, and my goal is to move to the US. I received the US nursing certification 7 years ago, and now I’m studying hard to pass the IELTS test.
Another reason I’m studying English is to be vocal and share my experience with others, for the sake of my family I left behind and for the North Korean people. I want to grow in my expertise, and hope to work with people all over the world and bring awareness to the North Korea issue.
Who were the English buddies that you studied with?
I studied with Mark during summer, and with Cydney during fall. We used a textbook to review vocabulary, grammar, different idioms, and expressions… We also spent time talking about our lives and cultures. I feel like learning English is not just about the language, but also learning about the culture and connecting with other people.
During that time, the only things I did were working and studying English. I was so busy and exhausted. I was kind of hoping for someone to share my everyday life with. Being able to not only study with Mark and Cydney, but also share life and talk about ourselves gave me a lot of comfort and encouragement.
Among the expressions you studied, what was the most memorable?
There’s an expression, “a blessing in disguise,” that really stuck with me. All the hard times and difficult moments I had in North Korea, now that I look back, were all moments of blessing. They made me stronger and more resilient. I became thankful for the fact that I was from North Korea, and I was so happy to find a perfect expression for my feelings. I use the idiom often now.
Looking back, how has studying English impacted your life? What are your dreams for the future?
Back in North Korea, it was difficult to dream about the future. I already had my path chosen for me. My hometown had a huge coal mine, and most of the village people worked there. If your dad was a coal miner, eventually you’d become someone who also worked in the mining industry. It was hard to have a dream.
In South Korea, I learned that if you work hard, you can achieve anything. In the beginning, I didn’t know a single letter in the alphabet, but now I’m able to freely express my thoughts in English. I can have deep conversations with my friends from foreign countries. And I am equipped with both the confidence and skills to become a nurse in the US. I want to work hard and show to others who I really am, how far I can go, what I can achieve.
North Korean Refugee Rescues: An Update from Our Field Manager
Over the past few years, the impact of COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the day-to-day lives of North Korean people. Pandemic-related border lockdowns, increased surveillance, and unprecedented restrictions made it impossible for North Koreans to escape and reach freedom.
After a painstakingly long pause on rescues, at the end of 2022 we were finally able to start moving people safely again. Our field team has worked tirelessly to establish new, viable routes and adapt to circumstances on the ground. Navigating unprecedented restrictions and developing new routes has led to significantly higher and extremely volatile rescue costs, but our commitment is stronger than ever to help North Korean refugees reach freedom.
We recently sat down with our field manager, Jennifer* to hear directly about the current needs, challenges, and potential of this new era of rescues.
Could you give us a general overview of the situation in China?
So much has changed since the start of the pandemic. Activists have been kicked out of the country; brokers no longer want to do this work because of the increased surveillance and restrictions. The number of underground rescue networks has shrunk significantly. Navigating these challenges puts us at higher risk, which means that we have to use more resources, including people on the ground, to guarantee that our groups move safely. Because of the increased costs, we soon might have to ask people to wait to be rescued and it’s agonizing, especially because timing is critical in the underground railroad. There are very few moments when everything aligns and it is safe to travel, but because we don’t have funds, North Korean refugees lose those rare, precious opportunities. The North Koreans I’ve been in communication with are living in constant fear because of the increased use of security technology by the state, such as facial recognition with AI. On top of that, domestic violence continues to be a serious issue for many North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married in China.
Is there a risk of being sent back to North Korea right now?
Refugees who are caught in China are forcibly sent back to North Korea where they are severely punished. However, because of the pandemic, North Korea sealed its borders in January 2020 and has yet to reopen them. This means that repatriation hasn’t been possible yet, but we are hearing rumors that North Korea will start receiving people again soon.
Many people who have tried to escape were arrested and we’ve heard that currently, there are a large number of North Korean refugees in Chinese prisons.
What kind of situations are people escaping from in China?
It’s mostly North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married to Chinese men. Some have been living in China for several years and the pandemic left them stranded with no way to escape. We had heard that some of these women were facing even worse treatment from their Chinese husbands than before. The people who arrived in China in 2019 or early 2020 only had a very short period of time to learn the language, culture, and to adjust before having to quarantine. It has been much more difficult for these people to try to escape from China.
More recently, some of the refugees we’re in communication with have serious health issues. But they can’t go to the hospital because they’re not Chinese citizens and would risk being arrested and sent back to North Korea. They are hoping to make it to South Korea to get the healthcare they need.
And what are some of the challenges that North Koreans in China face day-to-day?
They can’t go outside. There was already a lack of freedom to travel and move around freely before the pandemic, but it has only gotten worse since then. When I speak with them, it feels like they’re losing hope. The reality of how difficult and expensive the journey has become is discouraging, especially because they hear about people who attempted the journey and were caught and arrested. So for people who were connected with us recently, many were shocked to hear about our work. They said it was almost surreal because they didn’t think it was possible to get to freedom at this time.
What motivated these people to leave North Korea in the first place?
It’s different depending on the person. There are usually personal circumstances that lead them to look for better opportunities in China or South Korea. Many people are tricked into human trafficking. Some women choose to live with a Chinese husband of their own will. They believe it’s better to live in China in this way rather than live in North Korea.
What have been the biggest challenges for you?
While I'm very grateful that we've been able to resume rescues, it's a shame that we can only move a limited number of people due to increased costs and heightened security. I stay in close contact with refugees in China who are hoping to reach freedom, and some are in urgent situations. A woman who was 4 months pregnant had to make the journey before her belly got too big. Some refugees have health conditions that need immediate treatment, but they’re unable to go to the hospital. My hope is that we can rescue as many people as possible so they can experience freedom and live the full lives that they deserve.
Since restarting rescues last December, the significant increase in costs have depleted our rescue and resettlement funds, leaving many North Korean refugees waiting, once again, for an opportunity to escape. Your support is needed now more than ever.
Throughout the month of June, all one time gifts made here will go 100% towards our rescue and resettlement efforts. In honor of World Refugee Day 2023 and the countless people waiting for their rare and precious opportunity to reach freedom, give a gift today.
*Jennifer is a pseudonym used to protect our field manager’s identity and avoid compromising this work.