Our Director of Research & Strategy, Sokeel Park, recently conducted an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit. Read a selection of the Q&A below or click here to check it out in its entirety.
Q: Have you got in trouble for supporting and rescuing refugees from North Korea? And have you received messages or reaction from the North Korea leadership?
A: I’ve personally never gotten in trouble for doing this work, and I feel quite safe in Seoul. I know several people that have armed personal bodyguards provided by the South Korean government because they have been threatened by Pyongyang state media though.
This is a Reddit exclusive: Fairly recently, we got an email response to one of our listserv blasts from a North Korean government email address (I think it might have been their diplomatic mission in Geneva) that said simply “F___ YOU”. (You can fill in the blanks). That’s been about the extent of our communication from the North Korean authorities.
Q: Your website says that it costs $2500 to rescue one refugee. Could you please break that down?
A: Sure. Here is the approximate breakdown:
Basic Needs – $250
Transportation – $500
Accommodation – $100
Rescue Fees – $1,350 (Costs for fines, fees, and the network of partners and staff in the underground to bring refugees to safety)
We provide accommodation, transportation, food, medicine, basic necessities (such as clothing), and protection for refugees during the entire journey from China to Southeast Asia; additionally, we cover all costs and fees associated with partners and individuals who provide protection, guidance, and other services.
By bringing North Korean refugees to freedom and safety through our own trusted networks, we can ensure that people who otherwise don’t have the resources or contacts to escape by themselves are able to come through without cost or condition and are treated with dignity and protected from abuse or exploitation along the way. This also enables them to begin their new lives after resettling without debt to brokers or networks that would have helped them escape.
Q: How is Shin Dong-hyuk doing now? Any updates on his situation?
A: He’s in Geneva right now at the UN Human Rights Council. In fact, I think he spoke a few hours ago. He’s doing well; we caught up the week before last and had pizza.
Q: In an article in The Atlantic, you wrote, “… refugees are sending money back to their North Korean relatives through broker networks. An estimated $10-15 million is being sent each year, enabling family members to bribe security officials, protect themselves, and even invest in entrepreneurial business activity or smuggling operations.”
Could you provide some more information, or sources of information, on this broker network? I mean how does someone send money to a relative in North Korea? Western Union?
A: Haha. Not Western Union. It’s faster than that. It goes through a network of brokers. You have a guy inside North Korea sitting on cash, and he has a bank account in China that people can deposit into. When they send the money, they call him and he can check his balance by phone banking (using Chinese mobile phones that pick up signal on the North-Korean side of the border). He then gives the cash to a courier who delivers the money to the relevant household. It’s just wire transfers and phone calls, so it’s very fast, efficient, and reliable. And that money has huge impact in North Korea.
Consider that South Korea’s per capita GDP is the same as the EU average, or right between Israel and New Zealand, and North Korea’s per cap GDP is between Zambia and Benin. That gives you an idea of the power of remittances being sent by defectors back to their home communities in North Korea. It has a big impact in fueling marketization in NK.
Q: What plans are in place to help integrate North Korean refugees into modern society? Do you get instances of rescued people wanting to go back to North Korea?
A: Refugee resettlement is different in every country, but most NK refugees arrive in South Korea so I’ll focus on that. The South Korean government has their own programs to resettle North Korean refugees, including a compulsory 3-month resettlement training program at Hanawon, and then tailored benefits when resettled refugees are living in South Korean society.
Our own resettlement assistance programs are designed to contribute additional support to try to ease their readjustment to South Korean society, and help them fulfill their potential here. For instance we have English-language education assistance, financial assistance (scholarships and the like), and we provide study abroad and career development opportunities.
We’ve never worked with someone who wanted to go back to North Korea, but it’s not completely impossible for a resettled refugee to harbour thoughts about going back. There have been a handful of people who have actually gone back (out of over 26,000 North Korean refugees who have resettled in South Korea), but it’s hard to ascertain the personal circumstances – whether they were motivated to go back because they were disappointed by life in South Korea, or whether they were blackmailed by the North Korean authorities, etc.
Q: How is North Korea today different from North Korea ten or twenty years ago?
A: It is massively different on the inside compared to ten or twenty years ago. (Contrast this to the level of international politics, which is largely similar to how it was 20 years ago. Example here. ).
The collapse of the state-socialist economy in the 1990s caused a huge famine but also triggered what turned out to be long-term, irreversible economic, informational, and social changes that are transforming North Korea from the bottom up. We believe that in the long term, these trends make the current regime-system unsustainable and will therefore lead to political-level change in our lifetime. There are multiple pathways to change and, if we’re honest, it’s very hard to know exactly how or when those changes will play out.
When we talk with refugees who left North Korea 10 years ago compared to 5 years ago, compared to people who left this year, it is clear how much social change is happening inside North Korea.
Q: Have you thought of letting people sponsor individual refugees, like Save the Children does? Sponsors could donate money for specific things the refugee needs and keep in touch via progress reports, letters etc. It might require hiding identifying details of the refugee, but such a sponsorship might help people feel more connected and involved.
A: Thanks for the suggestion! Because of the need to maintain identity security and our North Korean-born friends’ concerns about that, it’s a constant challenge for us to try to make that connection between our supporters and the refugees that we work with. We’ll definitely keep on trying to improve in this area though, and you will see new approaches on this from us in the near future!
Q: Why do you think the North Korean crisis has gone on for so long? I feel like it’s a really important topic, but it never makes front pages.
A: This is definitely a huge challenge facing humanity today. Progress is being made, mostly by the North Korean people, but they still face big barriers to change inside their own country, including one of the most repressive government-security apparatuses ever assembled in human history.
In terms of the narrative problem, I agree. The international media mainly focuses on “crazy Kim and nukes,” not the North Korean people – their challenges and their potential, and the bottom-up changes that they are driving. We are working to change that narrative in multiple ways.
Q: If you could ask the DPRK refugees what they would say to the outside world, what would it be?
I know that almost everyone who reports on the DPRK, from both sides, is biased (good intentions aside). I would love to know what the people who grew up there would most like the outside to know, in their own words.
A: Hard to answer in a simple way, because every person from North Korea is going to say something different – it’s going to depend a lot on their personal experiences. Also, they don’t necessarily know what the outside world thinks of North Korea soon after they have left, so I think it is hard for them to answer too. In fact, refugees are curious about what people know/think about North Korea. Genuinely I think that a lot of refugees would rather ask questions and answer people’s questions rather than to just start telling people things.
In general I think that a lot of North Korean refugees do want people in the outside world to have a better understanding of what is happening in their homeland, including a more balanced understanding of North Korean society. Some want people to know the abuses they may have faced in North Korea, whilst others may want the outside world to know that North Koreans are not just starving, brainwashed robots as they are sometimes portrayed, that actually there is a lot of change coming from the North Korean people themselves.
Q: You have built up quite an impressive organization in the USA so far. Is it your attention to continue to limit your working area to the US, or do you see yourselves expand to other countries in the future?
A: We have an office in Seoul as well (where I am based) and we think this is definitely an important audience as well that we need to reach more. We do want to expand our international reach, but as you can imagine it’s a matter of trying to be strategic with limited resources, staff, and time.
Q: A lot of North Koreans in the South who want to get their family members out as well often rely on paid smugglers. This is of course a dilemma. Do you see them making a profit out of this as a necessary evil that makes this all possible, do you think these smugglers are not as bad as we might make them out to be, or do you have problems with (some of) these smugglers after all?
A: Great question on the dilemma of paid smugglers/brokers. Over the years this system or service has become somewhat professionalized and there are thousands of North Korean refugees who have made it to South Korea with their help, and they wouldn’t be here otherwise. On the other hand because it is completely informal and there is no recourse to authorities, there can be exploitation and extortion by people working in this area.
By working consistently in the underground with trusted partners that we can constantly evaluate, we are able to bring people through in a way that ensures as much as possible that their welfare, dignity, and safety is protected along the journey.
Q: I understand that there are a lot of different variables, but do you have any estimates as to when changes could happen in North Korea? Either Kim stepping back on the totalitarianism or unification. Also, are there any other groups that LiNK works with in this endeavor?
A: We don’t have any official partner organizations, but informally we are constantly meeting with other stakeholders and organizations who work on this issue (actually there’s not many) in order to share information, discuss strategies, etc. We think this is very important, because people working on this issue from different angles have access to different information and perspectives.
Timeline questions are always very difficult. I will say that the next 3 years are important for the Pyongyang leadership, because the new administration has vaguely promised change and economic improvement, and if the North Korean people don’t start to see tangible evidence of things getting better then even more people will write off the current leadership as being more of the same as under Kim Jong-il.
Bigger picture, we have to be very humble about our predictive power on what is going to happen in North Korea. Analysts constantly get predictions wrong and get blindsided by huge events that are just around the corner. USSR collapse, Arab Spring, Burma/Myanmar opening, 2007-8 sub-prime crisis etc, etc, etc.
(This is apples and oranges, but…) consider that there were thousands of very smart people who are heavily incentivised to use a wealth of economic indicators and data to correctly predict short-term financial turning points but they still miss them. North Korea is probably the hardest country in the world to research and there’s just a handful of people who are poorly incentivised to make correct predictions!
Q: What inspired you to start helping out North Koreans? When you first started were you unsure of yourself? How has your safety been affected by taking part of this? Are you in danger since you help out North Koreans? What advice do you have for people who are interested in learning more about North Korea and how people can help?
A: I was interested from an early age, but as I grew older and considered a career in international affairs I realised that 1) This is a very serious issue; 2) There are very few people working for progress on this issue; 3) There might actually be something that I can contribute on this issue.
In general, I’m quite an unsure person so yes I’d say I was unsure of myself starting out, haha. I still think I am very lacking to be doing the kind of work that I’m doing, so I need to constantly learn and develop my abilities to be as effective as possible for the Korean people.
In terms of advice, learning the Korean language is definitely important in the long term for being able to access a lot of information and of course communicate with Korean-speaking people on this issue. If you can go to North Korea, then go and see for yourself as well, of course you need to go with your eyes open and know the limitations of tourism in North Korea at the moment. Keep on studying about this issue, start to get practical hands-on experience, and consider how you might be able to best use your personal background, skill-sets, and other assets to contribute effective support for progress in North Korea in the long-term. Good luck!
Q: I am a university economics student who lately has been getting more and more interested in North Korea. I don’t have any formal education in Asian studies, but my specialization is developmental economics.
What sort of opportunities could I pursue or careers could I make out of my interest in the country? Other than working for an organization like yours, or maybe the US government, I’m not sure if North Korean knowledge is in huge demand.
A: Developmental economics is definitely one of the important frameworks for approaching North Korea. You don’t necessarily need to be a pure country-specialist to make a contribution on this issue. In general, I favour multi-disciplinary approaches and striving for holistic understanding.
Apart from the USG, and orgs like LiNK, there are international organizations and NGOs operating inside the country that you could check out. Also if you’re a student right now you can think long term. North Korea will open up, one way or another, in our lifetime. There will be more opportunities to work with the North Korean people on the ground inside the country when that starts to happen.
Q: One of your t-shirts says “I (heart symbol) North Korea” and your message about liberating North Koreans talks about how refugees can get money back into the country to help their families. Do you think that support from America might be greater if your message were more in tune with western politics – more about weakening the totalitarian regime and encouraging capitalism?
A: Thanks for the feedback! The intention of that particular t-shirt was to challenge people’s understanding of what “North Korea” is or could be, and start interesting conversations around that. Are we going to allow the whole country to be defined by a terrible government, the Kim leaders, or security issues like nuclear weapons development? Or could we define the country as 24 million people living in a normal (or even beautiful) country that has a terrible government?
We’re definitely about supporting, promoting, and accelerating change in North Korea, the empowerment of the North Korean people, increasing freedoms, economic liberties (including a more functional capitalism) etc in North Korea. We can definitely get better and clearer in our messaging so I appreciate the feedback, don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any other thoughts or suggestions!
Q: How do you feel about missionaries?
A: Personally I’m not religiously motivated, but I don’t have a problem if people get involved for religious motivations.
I think people’s support and activism should be judged based on how effective it is in supporting the North Korean people and long-term progress on this issue, as well as of course how respectful it is of the people that they work with.
Q: I was curious about your job title as Director of Research & Strategy. Exactly what type of research do you do at a place like LiNK?
Secondly I was curious about how often the South Korea government debriefs individual refugees that LiNK rescues? Is it primarily the high level defectors or do they interview everyone that comes South?
A: North Korea is a big, complex, multi-faceted issue. We feel that to develop and implement the most effective strategies in the long-term–and because a lot of people and institutions look to us for information and insight on this issue–we need to develop a holistic understanding of what is happening and what may happen at all levels of the issue, from international politics to NK society and refugee issues. And we need to keep this understanding up-to-date. To this end I meet with practitioners working on this issue, use secondary sources etc, but by far the most interesting and useful information comes from the North Korean refugees that we work with, who can teach us directly about the challenges and changes that they experienced in their home communities.
The South Korean government’s National Intelligence Service debriefs every person that arrives from North Korea. As you can guess, depending on who the person is and what they were doing while living in North Korea, they might have more or less information that the NIS is interested in.
Q: As I understand it, North Korea has now allowed its citizens the use of cellphones (if only for calls within the country). Is that a “usable” resource for groups like yours or others working in the support of North Korean refugees? OR does DPRK have the cellular system monitored to the point of uselessness?
Mobile phones are an important development in NK, both in terms of the domestic network which is empowering traders and increasing market efficiency and connectivity between people, and the illegal Chinese mobile phones which are smuggled across the border and then used from the North Korean side to access Chinese networks and therefore make calls to China, South Korea, or even the US. These are very important in helping to facilitate communication between refugees and their family and friends back home, and are one example of how information technologies are improving information/communication access and helping to accelerate bottom-up change in North Korea.
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