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North Korean Agents of Change | Seohyun’s Story

November 28, 2022

It was an ordinary taxi ride. The driver struck up a casual conversation, commenting about the weather, asking what I do. At some point I shared that I was from North Korea- after two years studying abroad in China, I was used to the curiosity that typically followed.

But instead, the driver pointed to a picture of Deng Xiaoping on his rear view mirror. He explained how China was able to open up, reform, and get out of poverty. Then he asked, very pointedly, “why hasn’t your leader done the same thing, and left the people to starve?”

That was the moment when over two decades of brainwashing finally began to unravel.

My name is Seohyun Lee and I’m an advocate for the North Korean people. I was born and raised in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. This is my story.

I had the unique opportunity to study in China because of my father’s position and commitment to the regime. He was a high-ranking overseas economic officer, and was allowed to bring his children if he could afford all living expenses and tuition. At first, my brother and I alternated our time in China- one member of the family always had to stay behind as a hostage. But in 2010, the regime adopted a more open policy that allowed entire families to be together, so we were all finally reunited.

Growing up in Pyongyang, the circle of elites was very small. Every so often, you’d hear about a family that was sent to a political prison camp because someone’s son or daughter acted out of line. I restrained myself from an early age because I knew my actions and words could threaten the safety of my loved ones.

So even after learning the truth about North Korea, there was not much I could do. I hoped that because Kim Jong Un was a younger guy who had also studied abroad in Switzerland, our generation could change North Korea with more open-minded leadership. But it turned out to be even worse than before.

My fondest memories in China are with my roommate, another North Korean exchange student. She was my best friend and like a big sister to me. We traveled, shopped, and shared many delicious meals together.  When I was sick with the flu, she took me to the hospital and stayed by my side until my IV was finished. During those years, she was like another part of me.

I’ll never forget the last time I saw her. I watched helplessly as she was forcefully taken from our dorm room by North Korean officers. Her father was executed for being associated with Kim Jong Un’s uncle, and she was sent to a political prison camp with the rest of her family. 

That day, my eyes were opened to the brutality of the regime. To them, we were  just like batteries to be thrown away when used up. Our lives never mattered.

I miss her so much. I really want to believe that she’s still alive, and one day I can meet her again.

What happened to my roommate was not an isolated incident. Starting in 2013, there were countless executions and purges happening in North Korea under the Kim Jong Un regime. My family and I lost many friends, neighbors, and respected colleagues. While dealing with great loss, we also knew that at any moment, we could be next.

It was a crisp fall evening. My family and I drove to a park and left our phones in the car. We walked until we were out of earshot, and finally talked openly about what we should do.

My father worked hard because he had hope that improving the economy would better the lives of the people. But we realized that under the current system, what he desired was not possible. So in order to save ourselves and also bring change to the country, we decided to leave in October 2014.

My dad still has a huge heart for North Korea. But I want to make sure that his love for the country is separated from being loyal to the regime. Back in North Korea, he worked tirelessly for a better future for the people. Today, he’s working towards the day where every North Korean has guaranteed human rights and three meals a day.

Like a lot of Asian parents, my father is not good at outwardly expressing affection. The way it manifests is through constant nagging. I didn't get it when I was young, but as I’ve gotten older, I now understand that's how he shows his love and care for us.

There have been moments when I’ve wished I was born in a different country. But when I think about my family, I never regret it. 

My dad has been our foundation, my mom is the most thoughtful and perfect woman I know, and my brother has always looked out for me. We all love and support each other, especially after going through so much together.

This fall, I started my graduate studies at Columbia University. I never imagined that I would be chasing my dreams here in America. I hope to use everything I learn to bring a better future for the North Korean people, even after they become free from the current regime.

When my family and I left China, we came here not only to save ourselves, but with ambitions to change the system and bring freedom. Many people have not been as lucky as I have, so I feel it is my privilege and obligation to be a voice for my fellow North Koreans. I believe many of them are already opening their minds to the outside world. 

We need to let them know that there’s a global movement of people who have their backs, and we can’t wait for them to be free.

It’s #GivingTuesday, the year’s biggest day of generosity! As we work towards creating the best version of our world, we’re making sure it’s one where every North Korean is free.

Your support will allow us to continue investing in North Korean agents of change - people like Seohyun - who are leading this movement and transforming one of the most repressive countries in the world.

Through access to English language programs, mentorship, scholarships, and more, you can help us support more North Korean refugees as they pursue their dreams and impact this issue.

Give Today

Time Travelers: North Korean Defectors Resettling in South Korea

December 16, 2022

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 Koreans first arrive in South Korea, the culture shock can be overwhelming

Resettlement Process

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.

North Korean refugees go through a three month adjustment program when they first arrive

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.

Modern South Korean society. Photo Credit: Diego Mariottini and Getty Images.

New Challenges

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

Geumju, a North Korean refugee who resettled in South Korea

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.

Adjusting to South Korean life can be difficult for many North Korean refugees

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.

The number of North Korean refugees who have resettled in South Korea


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.

Resettled North Korean refugees

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

A North Korean Refugee who has resettled in South Korea
“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

We’re only able to provide this crucial support with your help. Donate today to keep these programs running.

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