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.
Time Travelers: North Korean Defectors Resettling in South Korea
To reach freedom, North Korean defectors typically brave a perilous 3,000 mile journey through China and Southeast Asia. But even after finally reaching safety, they face a long road ahead as they begin their new lives.
The majority of North Korean refugees have resettled in South Korea. Many describe the transition like stepping out of a time machine, 50 years into the future. In addition to learning about things like the internet and ATMs, getting used to their newfound freedom alone can be a lot to grasp after decades of living in the world’s most authoritarian country.
A new journey, one of restoration, discovery, and adjustment, begins.
When North Korean refugees first reach South Korea, they go through a thorough debrief process with the National Intelligence Service to verify their background. From there, the Hanawon Settlement Support Center helps them ease into modern South Korean society.
Every defector must complete a three month adjustment program, which covers:
- Basic skills, like how to open a bank account and use the Internet
- Job and vocational training
- Field trips to shops, food courts, and other businesses
- The social and cultural differences between North and South Korea
- The history of the Korean peninsula
After completing the program, refugees receive government benefits to begin their new lives, including an initial subsidy, housing support, and healthcare.
South Korean Culture Shock
Emerging from Hanawon, North Korean refugees often experience culture shock when they find themselves fully immersed in South Korean society.
One of the first things many notice is the abundance of greenery and trees compared to North Korea. While the entire Korean peninsula was severely deforested by the mid-20th century, South Korea is one of the world’s few reforestation success stories.
Many defectors are also surprised by how safe South Korea is. One person can manage a big market stall on their own and not worry about theft, whereas goods have to be closely guarded at North Korea’s Jangmadangs. Other new experiences include the widespread availability of clothing and existence of vending machines and mannequins.
While the South Korean government provides material support, many North Korean refugees still face challenges starting over in a very different society. Just navigating daily life can be difficult at first, and making longer-term decisions like what to study or finding a stable job can be even more overwhelming.
“When I first arrived in South Korea, I was confused and didn’t know where to even start my new life in freedom. I wasn’t even sure who I was as a person.”
– Geumju, escaped North Korea in 2008
At school, additional study may be needed to catch up with their South Korean peers after decades of propaganda-based learning. In the workforce, many refugees have to retrain and re-qualify for the same jobs they had in the North, such as doctors and teachers. These discrepancies have contributed to an income gap between North and South Koreans in South Korea’s hyper competitive society.
In addition to figuring out the future, many refugees are still coping with physical and mental health issues from a traumatic past. A lack of healthcare in North Korea often results in decades of unaddressed medical and dental problems. Roughly 50% of North Korean refugees also suffer from PTSD. Many had to leave loved ones behind, witnessed or experienced torture, or survived trafficking, which can be tough to process.
Finding Community & Onward
Forming new relationships in South Korea can be one of the biggest challenges for defectors. In North Korea, lack of mobility and aspects of life organized by the regime meant that everyone in a neighborhood knew each other. To meet up with someone, it was commonplace to just stop by their home. In comparison, South Korea’s decentralized “yaksok” (promise) culture of scheduling a time and place to meet specific people may feel unfamiliar and take extra effort.
Refugees may also not want to reveal that they’re from North Korea or can have trouble sharing past experiences. Some may also experience prejudice against North Koreans for their accent or stereotypes, such as being uneducated or untrustworthy.
Overall, although life in freedom brings many advantages and benefits, it comes with some unexpected challenges. Before their escape, North Koreans may have only heard good things or focused on the positives. Moving to a foreign place and building a new life from scratch is difficult for anyone, and can be especially challenging for North Korean refugees.
Impact of the Pandemic
During the pandemic, refugee numbers have been at an all time low. Unprecedented restrictions on movement and surveillance have made the journey through China and Southeast Asia almost impossible.
On the resettlement side, refugees have also struggled as some support programs were scaled back or cut altogether. Many have felt especially lonely during this time or found it difficult to work towards their goals.
Agents of Change
Despite all odds, North Korean refugees are some of the most powerful examples of human resilience. When they have the support they need to successfully resettle in freedom, they can become some of the most effective agents of change on this issue.
Defectors are embracing and taking pride in their identity, sharing their stories on the global stage as YouTubers, entrepreneurs, and advocates. When they reclaim the narrative on North Koreans, they directly challenge the regime’s portrayal of their country.
North Korean refugees also have the unique opportunity to affect change inside North Korea through remittances. Many maintain contact with their home communities and send money back to their families, helping people inside and accelerating change at the ground level.
The Support of a Movement
Reaching freedom is just the first step. LiNK is dedicated to working with North Korean refugees to help build their capacity and realize their full potential in their new lives! We do this by:
- Organizing workshops for entrepreneurship, advocacy, and more
- Facilitating a 1:1 English tutoring program
- Sponsoring scholarships for North Korean students pursuing higher education
- Providing a community of ongoing support and resources
“I’m touched by LiNK’s supporters. I can feel their genuine heart. Before I learned more about LiNK, I just thought that I came out through a rescue network. I never imagined that so many people have been rooting for us and that it’s a bigger movement than just rescues. Now that I know all of you helped us with kind hearts, I want to succeed and do good things for others in South Korea.”
– Yuna, escaped through LiNK’s networks and resettled in 2021