Women’s History Month | Korean Freedom Fighter Yu Gwan-sun

March 1, 2023

March 1st marks the beginning of Women’s History Month, an opportunity to celebrate the contributions women have made to culture and society through the ages. 

For Koreans, it’s also the anniversary of the March 1st Movement, or Sam-il (3-1) Undong. On this day in 1919, Koreans across the peninsula took a stand against Japanese colonial occupation. As peaceful protesters called for independence, an unlikely leader and activist emerged in 16 year old Yu Gwan-sun. As we honor her bravery as a symbol of Korea’s collective fight for freedom, we’re reminded of the North Korean women who are still fighting for free and full lives today.

Suh Se-Ok, The March 1st Independence Movement, painted in 1986

The Korean Independence Movement

The Sam-il movement began with a declaration of independence issued by thirty-three Korean cultural and religious leaders - many of whom were young adults. In the face of great risk, they laid out a Korean vision of equality, internationalism, human happiness and world peace that is still relevant today. These daring words galvanized the nation, and peaceful protests erupted across the country over the coming weeks, with peasants, tradespeople, housewives, and scholars marching alongside one another. An estimated 2 million Koreans participated in these first public displays of resistance, fostering a sense of national unity; an awareness that each individual was not alone in their desire for freedom.

Ordinary Korean women played a crucial role in the grassroots movement. While traditional Confucian culture and Japanese education policy relegated women to the domestic sphere, they emerged as leaders in the demonstrations following March 1st. Along with freedom for their country, they sought social awakening and an improvement in the status of women.

Female students marching in the Sam-il movement demonstrations, image via Korean Quarterly

Canadian journalist Frederick Arthur Mckenzie, who was working as a correspondent in Korea at the time, witnessed the historic culture shift. In his book, Korea’s Fight for Freedom, he recalls how “Female students were most active in Seoul. For instance, most of the people arrested in the morning of the 5th of March were girl students.”

Freedom Fighter Yu Gwan-sun

Yu Gwan-sun was one such student, a brilliant 16-year-old girl who attended Ewha Hakdang. There, she witnessed the beginnings of the Sam-il Movement and took part in the initial protests in Seoul. Yu and her classmates were detained by Japanese authorities, but missionaries from their school were able to negotiate their release.

Yu Gwan-sun’s Prisoner Identification Card

Following March 1st, schools were shut down in an attempt to stop students and activists from coordinating further protests. Yu returned to her hometown of Cheonan, but her conviction for a free Korea did not waver. She smuggled a copy of the declaration of independence and went from village to village, spreading word about the Sam-il Movement. On March 31st, Yu climbed to the top of Mount Maebong and lit a beacon fire, signaling to protestors that the time had come to make their stand.

The next day, 3,000 people gathered at Aunae marketplace in Cheonan shouting “Mansei!” and “Long live Korean independence!” Yu distributed homemade taegukgi, or Korean national flags, while rallying the villagers. When Japanese military police arrived to shut down the protest, they fired into the crowd and killed 19 people, including Yu’s parents.

March 1st demonstrators in Seoul, image via Korean Quarterly

The Sam-il Movement was eventually suppressed by Japanese authorities in mid-April. According to The Bloody History of the Korean Independence Movement by Park Eun-sik, there were an estimated 7,500 deaths, 16,000 injuries, and 46,000 arrests.

Yu Gwan-sun was arrested and convicted of sedition. She was sent to Seodaemun Prison but even then, she did not give up the fight for freedom. While incarcerated, she famously wrote:

“Even if my fingernails are torn out, my nose and ears are ripped apart, and my legs and arms are crushed, this physical pain does not compare to the pain of losing my nation. My only remorse is not being able to do more than dedicating my life to my country.”

On the one year anniversary of the Sam-il Movement, Yu organized a large-scale protest with her fellow inmates. They were brutally beaten and tortured for their defiance, and she was 

transferred to an isolated underground cell. On September 28th, 1920, at the age of 17, Yu died from the injuries she suffered.

Portrait of Yu Gwan-sun in Yu Gwan-Sun Memorial Hall

Yu never experienced a free Korea, yet she audaciously fought to see a different future in her lifetime. Twenty-five years after her passing, in August of 1945, Korea finally gained its independence from colonialism, but at the same time was split into North and South Korea. Today, Yu is remembered as Korea’s “Joan of Arc,” and the Sam-il Movement is celebrated annually as a national holiday in South Korea.

North Korea’s Fight For Freedom

As we honor the bravery of Yu Gwan-sun and other women in history, we’re also reminded of the millions of North Koreans still fighting for free and full lives. They’re engaging in everyday acts of resistance and transforming their country from the ground-up.

In North Korea, women are also the ones driving crucial engines of change. Grassroots market activity at the Jangmadang is primarily driven by women, shifting economic power away from the regime and into the hands of the people. Women are smuggling goods across the border, testing the limits of self-expression through fashion and beauty, and becoming breadwinners for their families. From outside of the country, resettled North Korean women are accelerating change as activists and entrepreneurs, sending money and information back home. 

While North Korean women still face many obstacles and human rights abuses, they’re challenging the status quo and striving towards freedom.

An outdoor market in North Korea

Liberty in North Korea

LiNK is helping North Korean refugees to reach freedom, begin new lives, and become agents of change on this issue. We’re so excited and grateful to announce that 8 North Korean women have recently reached freedom through LiNK’s rescue routes!

During the three years of heightened surveillance and lockdowns in China, our field team has worked tirelessly to establish new routes and expand our network. We’re excited to finally gain momentum in this area of our rescue work!

Like Yu Gwan-sun, these North Korean women never gave up in their pursuit of freedom. Many of them had crossed the North Korean border into China years ago, but were unable to complete the journey during the pandemic. Now they’ll be able to take full authorship of their lives.

“I tried multiple times to escape China but ended up getting caught and spending time in a Chinese prison. When I left home this time, I knew it would be my last attempt to reach freedom. If I failed, I had planned to drink pesticide and kill myself - if I were caught it would do so much harm to my family in China and even in North Korea. This time with the help of LiNK, I successfully made it to safety. I threw away the pesticide after the journey. I risked my life to come here, and I will live in freedom to the fullest.”

- Yi Hyun, reached freedom through LiNK’s networks in 2023

Thank you for making this possible with your steadfast support, especially through a tumultuous past few years. North Koreans have not given up, and they will not until they achieve their freedom. We can stand with them as they change history.

Fundraise or donate to help rescue more North Korean refugees today!

Empowering North Korean Refugees | An Overview of LiNK’s Programs

March 31, 2023

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.

Our North Korean friend, Illyong

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.

North Koreans on the rescue journey

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.

Resettled North Korean, Mia, and LiNK staff

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

LiNK English Language program participants, volunteers and LiNK staff

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.

Resettled North Korean, Joseph Kim, giving a TED talk

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

A representation of how North Koreans watch illegal foreign media

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.

North Korea. Photo credit: Lindsey Miller

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.

Advocacy Fellows 2022

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.

Co-Creators 2022, South Korea

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.

Participants and LiNK staff at Co-Creators 2022

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.

Allies to the North Korean people

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!

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