Meet Noel, Our Newest North Korean LiNK Staff Member!
History has been made!! We have hired our first full-time North Korean resettlement staffer! Noel Kim might look familiar and that’s because she was LiNK Advocacy Fellow and intern at our Seoul office! As our newest Program Coordinator in Seoul, she works side-by-side with newly resettled North Koreans as they overcome the challenges of starting over in a new society.
We recently sat down with Noel to learn more about her new job and her own experience coming to South Korea.
How is it been working at LiNK so far?
Work is fun! Every moment I feel like my job is meaningful so it doesn’t feel like work at all. I became a staffer after being an intern so the work is similar but with more responsibilities and opportunities.
Why did you want to work at LiNK?
I joined LiNK last year as an Advocacy Fellow. I witnessed what LiNK does for the North Korean people and it was inspirational. I am from North Korea and it’s my responsibility to help but when I came to South Korea, I didn’t do anything to support my fellow North Koreans. I was embarrassed about that so when I heard about LiNK I saw it as an opportunity to make a meaningful impact!
How do your own experiences as a resettled refugee help you when you’re with our North Korean friends?
I lived through the same experiences so I think they trust me from the get go. I try to comfort them and give them advice on educational opportunities, resettlement programs, and even fun things they can do now that they are free. I also tell them to travel around South Korea.
There’s a North Korean saying, "A walking fool is better than a sitting intellectual."
You have to go see and experience how society works for yourself. You have to go see what clothes people wear, how they talk, and where they go to hang out. I believe being curious helps people adjust to South Korean society much faster.
What are some of the challenges resettled refugees you work with are facing in South Korea?
Usually, the people I meet struggle a lot with their North Korean accents. When I came to South Korea, I was ashamed of my accent too. The moment you open your mouth people know you're from North Korea. It makes you feel different. But I always tell the North Koreans I meet that with time their accents will naturally fade and not to stress too much about it.Also, older people who want to learn a skill usually have doubts that they can achieve their dreams at their age. I don’t think age matters, so I encourage them not to think like that but I completely understand and empathize with their concerns and feelings.
You’re working with North Koreans who have just resettled in South Korea, what was one of the hardest challenges you faced when you resettled?
One of them was making choices. When I lived in North Korea, I was never free. But then I came to South Korea and had freedoms I had never had before. It sounds strange, but it was not easy having so much freedom. For example, choosing your college major or your dream for your life was a new challenge. There were too many choices. I didn’t know what I should do or what I should choose. I recently read the book Escape from Freedom and as I read it, it hit me – I was running away from freedom.
It was so good to have freedom, but because I never had it before, I didn’t know what to do with it. Now that I have the freedom to do what I want, I'm working on doing something great with it.
What has been your favorite moment while working at LiNK?
It was a few months ago. The South Korea office had a karaoke gathering with LiNK’s board members and a lot of our North Korean friends. We just hung out and sang a lot of songs. That was one of my favorite memories because I was the emcee! I got to dance and I sang “Chingu” ( or “Friend”), a very old song I sang when I was younger.
It was my first time meeting so many North Koreans in one place in South Korea. I thought,“This is amazing that we are all together. It’s so much easier to be happy when we are together.”
What are your future plans or goals?
I am going to continue writing. I want to finish writing a book by the time I’m 30. I don’t care if it’ll ever be published. I just want to do it. And even if it seems far in the future, when North Korea opens, I want to return. I want to do whatever I can for the North Korean people. My work now at LiNK is preparing me for the day North Korea finally opens.
Want to to learn more about our resettlement work? Check it out here!
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.