Squid Game and the Stories of North Korean Defectors
**Warning: Contains plot spoilers
Netflix’s Squid Game has taken the world by storm, becoming the platform’s most-watched show debut and infiltrating popular culture. The high-stakes thriller juxtaposes nostalgic kid’s games with brutal consequences, hooking viewers with a compelling cast and pointed social commentary.
One of Squid Game’s most captivating characters is Kang Sae-byeok, a tough-as-nails North Korean defector who wants nothing more than to reunite her family. While she and her little brother managed to safely reach South Korea, their father was killed during the border crossing and mother was captured.
Sae-byeok’s story reflects the real experiences of the North Korean refugees we work with who have risked everything for freedom. Many were separated from family, have little support when resettling, and face prejudice.
The Perils of Defecting
Crossing the heavily guarded border between North and South Korea is virtually impossible. Instead, refugees must escape through China and journey 3000 miles through a modern-day-underground-railroad to safety in Southeast Asia. This has only become more difficult with pandemic-related restrictions on movement and border lockdowns.
If caught fleeing North Korea or arrested in China, which doesn’t recognize defectors as refugees, North Koreans will be sent back and face harsh punishment - brutal beatings, forced labor, and even internment in a political prison camp.
This is the reality that people like Sae-byeok’s mother face.
Still, thousands of North Koreans have risked everything to seek a better life. An estimated 33,000 refugees have resettled in South Korea.
“I wasn’t sure if I would see my family again because of the possibility of getting caught while escaping to China. Before I left, I got some opium and carried it underneath the collar of my shirt so I could take it to kill myself in case I got caught.”
- Joy, escaped through LiNK’s networks in 2013
Continue reading Joy’s story to freedom here.
Once they reach safety and begin their new lives, refugees face a new set of challenges. Some have described the experience as stepping out of a time machine, 50 years into the future. Amidst figuring out the everyday intricacies of modern life, many refugees are still coping with the trauma of their past.
In addition to struggling to make ends meet, Sae-byeok faces social pressure and stigma as a North Korean. She deliberately masks her North Korean accent around everyone except her brother and is subjected to remarks about being a “communist” and “spy.”
While it is not specified how her brother ended up in an orphanage, one can assume that Sae-byeok left him there in hopes that he’ll receive care and education that she cannot provide. Tragically, the difficulties of establishing a new life in South Korea separated her from her family once again.
“At first I struggled a lot. There were many times when I either didn’t understand South Koreans or they didn’t understand me due to our different accents and words...Another difficulty was loneliness…I still feel lonely from time to time. I really miss my family.”
- Hae-Sun, rescued while hiding in China in 2013
Read more from Hae-Sun’s experience starting a new life in South Korea here.
Working with Brokers
Hoping to bring her mother to South Korea, Sae-byeok was in contact with shady brokers who scammed her of her money. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to fund these risky escapes, especially directly out of North Korea, and then from China to Southeast Asia.
With the prize money from the games, Sae-byeok hoped to reunite her family and live under one roof again.
This is Not Where the Story Ends
Working with the right people who can help safely smuggle people across borders is the real deal. Liberty in North Korea helps North Korean refugees escape safely through a modern-day underground railroad, without ANY cost or condition.*LiNK’s rescue efforts begin in China
LiNK reunites families, supports their new lives in resettlement, and helps individuals, like Sae-byeok, reach their full potential in freedom.
When LiNK’s field staffer told me I was finally safe, I was overwhelmed. I had endured so much to make it this far - hard labor, imprisonment, and torture. And even though I was overjoyed to make it to freedom, I was deeply saddened that [my daughter] Hee-Mang wasn’t with me… I hold onto the dream that one day we will live together again.”
- Jo-Eun, escaped North Korea through LiNK’s network in 2018
Read the story of Jo-Eun’s journey to freedom here.
When North Koreans successfully resettle, they become some of the most effective agents of change on the issue by sharing their stories with the world and sending money and information back to their families in North Korea.
Kang Sae-byeok’s story has come to an end, but you can do something to stand with the North Korean people today.
→ Watch undercover footage from real rescue missions.
→ Read more stories from North Korean refugees.
→ Donate to make rescue missions possible.
→ Connect with the global movement for the North Korean people by following us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Empowering North Korean Refugees | An Overview of LiNK’s Programs
North Korean people live in the most authoritarian and closed country in the world, deprived of their basic human rights and potential. For decades, they’ve faced a brutal dictatorship, systematic oppression, and enforced poverty. Despite the circumstances, North Koreans are striving towards freedom from both inside and outside of the country, creating irreversible change.
Since its founding in 2004, Liberty in North Korea has not wavered in its vision- a day when every North Korean man, woman, and child can live free and full lives. Yet during that time, our approach has shifted, transformed, and evolved. With an issue as complex as North Korea and as fundamental as human rights, we needed a holistic set of programs to enact change at multiple levels.
Refugee rescues are just the beginning. Over the years, we’ve expanded our approach and developed new ways to support and build the capacity of North Korean people. Here’s how we’re working together to accelerate change.
Rescue and Resettlement Support
The journey to freedom is not an easy one, but it begins with a choice. A choice to hope, to live, and sometimes to leave. Over the last decade, more than 1,300 North Korean refugees and their children have made this difficult decision and reached freedom through LiNK’s networks.
LiNK provides critical humanitarian assistance to North Korean refugees in China, helping them escape through a “modern day underground railroad.” It’s a dangerous 3,000 mile journey from the border of North Korea to Southeast Asia, from where they can safely resettle in South Korea or the U.S. The route is dotted with security checkpoints, state-of-the-art surveillance, and the constant risk of being forcibly sent back. The Chinese government refuses to recognize North Koreans as refugees, instead cooperating with the North Korean regime. If caught, North Korean refugees are forcibly returned to North Korea, where they may face severe punishment, imprisonment, torture, and even execution.
Helping North Koreans escape has only become more challenging since the start of the pandemic. Extreme border lockdowns and unprecedented restrictions made the journey nearly impossible and left many vulnerable refugees stuck in hiding, at even greater risk of exploitation. But the North Korean people didn’t give up, and neither did we. Our field team worked tirelessly to establish new routes and adapt to the circumstances on the ground, making rescues a reality again in late 2022.
We were also able to work with the U.S. Government to help unique and exceptional cases of North Koreans in third countries come to the United States utilizing a process known as “Humanitarian Parole” (HP). HP cases do not arrive in the U.S. with refugee status. As a result, LiNK provides full sponsorship and support in housing, medical, and financial assistance; interpretation and translation services; and coordinating legal needs to receive status.
Though nothing short of a herculean effort, reaching freedom is just the beginning. And navigating this newfound autonomy comes with unique challenges in both the U.S. and South Korea. Resettled North Koreans face enormous social, cultural and technological chasms that must be bridged in a short period of time. Many describe the transition like stepping out of a time machine, fifty years into the future.
LiNK’s resettlement program helps support the success of North Korean refugees. Whether this means financial assistance, making home visits, connecting people to resources and services, hosting workshops, or organizing community gatherings, we work together to develop self efficacy for a sustainable future.
From rescue to resettlement, LiNK walks with North Korean refugees into their new lives. A world of endless possibilities awaits, and we’re excited to see them reach their full potential and achieve their dreams.
Empowering Agents of Change
Emerging from one of the most hostile regimes in the world, North Korean defectors have demonstrated strength and resilience that most of us can not even imagine. They’ve asserted themselves as their people’s greatest hope. One of our biggest opportunities is to go beyond just resettlement support and invest in developing the capacity of North Koreans as agents of change.
A consistently reported challenge we hear from North Koreans is English language ability. It’s not only an essential skill for access to educational and career opportunities–it’s a tool to promote self-efficacy and narrative agency. In response to this need, we launched the LiNK English Language program (LELP) in South Korea. As of Fall 2022, over 200 North Korean students have participated in this program and were matched 1:1 with volunteer tutors. They emerged with the confidence and communication skills to advocate for themselves and others, and new connections that will last a lifetime.
"Before taking the program, I always felt reluctant to respond whenever foreigners came and asked for directions. Now I am not afraid of speaking in English anymore! I was able to improve and make more complete sentences by practicing grammar lessons. As LiNK’s vision is to help the North Korean people achieve freedom, LELP helped me achieve freedom in my English!"
– Minjeong, LELP 2021 participant
For North Koreans who are interested in growing as activists through their studies and extracurricular activities, LiNK offers the Changemakers Scholarship. Recipients are provided with six months of financial support to increase their capacity for advocacy work. Before participating in the program, only 9.6% of participants felt financially stable. After the program, 58% felt financially stable, their part-time job hours decreased by 7 hours a week on average, and 45% of participants saw an increase in their GPA.
On the U.S. side, many North Korean refugees have a difficult time finding professional development opportunities and breaking into the industries that interest them. Through our Mentorship Program, we connect them with mentors who can provide guidance on everything from resume building and interview strategies to financial management, investing, and counseling.
By developing programs like this, we’re empowering North Koreans with the confidence and capacity to navigate the world and be an agent of change. They’re educating audiences about North Korea and mobilizing Allies (like you!) around the world. They’re sending money and information back to their families in North Korea, transforming their country from the bottom up. Most importantly, they’re proving the potential of the 25 million people inside North Korea still striving towards freedom and a better future.
Accelerating Change in North Korea
A crucial way the North Korean government maintains control is by preventing the people from accessing outside information and media, instead bombarding them with propaganda. Despite this, North Korean people have found ways to access foreign information through smuggled devices and the proliferation of grassroots market activity.
Foreign media can have a powerful influence on how North Koreans perceive the outside world. Consuming smuggled movies, television shows, and music is not just entertaining–it’s educational. A screen can become someone’s window to the world. Through it, they see what it means to live in freedom and can begin to call their own reality into question.
"As more and more people gradually become informed about the reality of their living conditions, the North Korean government will either have to change and adapt in positive ways for its citizens, or to face the consequences of their escalating dissatisfaction. Much more needs to be done to increase the flows of information into North Korea.”
– Thae Yong-ho, Ex-North Korean Diplomat
North Korean defectors consistently say that increasing people’s access to outside information is one of the most effective ways to accelerate change inside the country. LiNK Labs is our space to innovate new ideas that empower North Korean people with information and technology from the outside world.
While much of this work must remain highly confidential to be effective, some key strategies include:
- Collaborating with external partners, including recently arrived defectors for the latest intel on the information landscape in North Korea
- Creating and curating content tailored for North Koreans inside the country
- Localizing existing technologies for safer distribution and consumption of information
With ongoing pandemic-related border closures and restrictions on movement, the information landscape in North Korea has become even more challenging in recent years. The regime has increased the severity of crackdowns and punishment for consuming and sharing foreign media, including credible reports of executions. This shows not just where the regime’s priorities lie, but that these social changes are a real threat to the regime’s control in the long term.
Changing the Narrative on North Korea
While dictators and nuclear missiles command headlines about North Korea, they erase the real heart of the country– its people. This is what the regime wants, to control the narrative both domestically and internationally. So when North Korean defectors share their authentic stories and perspectives, it’s a powerful act of defiance and a crucial way to change the narrative on North Korea. LiNK amplifies North Korean voices through online media, documentaries, and events, and empowers North Korean people to take authorship over their own stories.
LiNK’s Advocacy Fellows program supports and develops the next generation of North Korean leaders, storytellers, and advocates. We believe they will be the ones to create a new vision for North Korea and spearhead that change. Fellows participate in workshops to improve their knowledge on the issue, English language, public speaking, and storytelling skills before traveling across the United States. They speak at churches, community centers, universities, and Fortune 500 companies, and also brief key policy makers and stakeholders. Audiences have included the United Nations, State Department, The White House, National Security Council, the intelligence community, and embassies and think-tanks. Ultimately, Fellows are working to bring a greater focus to the North Korean people and human rights issues rather than just politics.
75% of people who attended an Advocacy Fellows event said it was their first time meeting a North Korean person, and 81% said their perspective on North Korea had been forever changed.
Young South Koreans also have massive potential to be a greater force for progress. Despite sharing a border and heritage with North Korea, the general public in South Korea has become increasingly disengaged from the issue. For decades, the narrative has been centered on politics and the threat of war, and this has contributed to creating an unwelcome environment for many North Korean refugees resettling in South Korea. We’re working to humanize people’s perspective of North Korea and raise a new generation of South Korean activists through our Co-Creators Program.
Each year, Co-Creators brings together North and South Korean students to work on collaborative advocacy projects, tapping into their potential as changemakers and activists redefining North Korea for their generation. They pitch ideas, train with us to improve writing and storytelling skills, and then execute their concept in the public sphere. In 2022, Co-Creators organized a Jangmadang (North Korean market) experience where visitors could learn more about the issue through interactive booths. They reached a total of 242,423 participants both online and in-person over the course of three days.
We believe it will be this new generation of young North and South Korean activists who will influence government policy and public attitudes towards North Korea, and will be crucial in shaping the country’s future when North Korea is finally free.
All around the world, we’re mobilizing a movement of support for the North Korean people. Our goal is to rally 25 million Allies – one Ally for every person in North Korea – who will help us inspire this generation, advocate for change, and stand with the North Korean people. Helping us to achieve this are LiNK Teams, student and community groups across the globe that are committed to seeing the North Korean people achieve their liberty in our lifetime.
Up until now, the scale of humanity’s response to this issue has not matched the scale of the challenge and oppression that the North Korean people face. By changing the narrative on North Korea, we believe that we can change the way that people, institutions, and governments respond to this challenge, and provide the support and resources the North Korean people deserve in order to determine their own future.
A Story of Human Triumph
From helping North Koreans in their escape to empowering a new generation of changemakers, our work is only possible because of the Liberty Community - monthly donors who enable us to develop and sustain these life-changing programs. Because of this community, we can rise to new challenges and sustainably develop long-term solutions.
Join the Liberty community today
To ensure that the story of North Korea is one of human triumph, freedom, and the fulfilled potential of 25 million North Korean people!