Hello and welcome to today’s post that’s a little more on the why I travelled, to California in particular, rather than describing a place itself so feel free to stick around or check out something else on the blog! If you’ve been keeping up with my California posts you might have noticed I have mentioned that I was interning/doing presentations and so the real reason as to why I was there is because I was doing a 4 month internship with Liberty in North Korea (LiNK).
Liberty in North Korea is a growing NGO (Non-government organisation) that works with North Korean refugees to accelerate change and its main goals are to help the thousands of North Korean refugees that are hiding in China and to change the narrative on North Korea.
If you’re unsure about the history of the Korean peninsula I recommend this short video. However to date North Korea remains the most repressive regime and its 24 million population must face challenges such as political prison camps – used to punish anyone and up to three generations of their family if they speak against the regime. Combine this with public executions and heavy surveillance of the people ensures the survival of the ruling elite of the country. Not only that but with its military first policy the majority of the country’s resources are diverted to the military, leaving over a generation of people malnourished.
Faced with such challenges, some North Koreans make the difficult journey to the border of North Korea and China to cross the Tumen river. Even here North Koreans must watch out for armed guards, as it’s illegal to leave the country without permission from the government. Making it into China may seem like the place to take a breather but China doesn’t recognise North Koreans as refugees but as economic mirgrants. So if you’re discovered you could be sent back to North Korea to face punishment that could be anything from being sent to a reeducation camp ranging up to torture and even death, depending on your social status. Many who make the escape to China use guides to help them, however many North Koreans who leave are women. Therefore, they are at a great risk of sexual exploitation by being sold as brides to Chinese men or sold into brothels. In addition to this, most North Koreans leave with little to no money and find that guides may charge them high rates to be able to pass through China thus it’s easy for North Koreans to become stuck there.
So by working with trusted partners, LiNK can provide a safer alternative at no cost to the refugees. 100% of donations made to LiNK go towards funding refugee rescues and it takes $3,000 to help one refugee. For the full picture and break down of how the donations are used exactly have a look here.
How did you even hear about all this? – When I was teaching English in South Korea, I had the opportunity to volunteer with North Korean refugees in Seoul. English is a sought after skill in South Korea, so that makes it essential for North Koreans if they are to integrate successfully into South Korea. Working with children at this particular boarding school it was my first real exposure to the issue – other than the overexcited headlines of the media. Everyone at this school was a North Korean refugee, all working together to help combat the education gap that North Korean refugees tend to have when they arrive in South Korea.
By hearing their stories of when they still lived in their home country and realising that all the children I was volunteering with had gone through so much more than I would ever be able to imagine. It spurred me to research more about the country, the challenges of the people and their successes once they had reached freedom. In that search I found LiNK and with an option to start a fundraising team or Rescue Team as they call it. I organised weekly meetings in my community to discuss all things North Korea and raise some money to help fund a rescue. However, I was supported via Skype calls by LiNK to ensure I always had different ideas on how to keep the meetings engaging, learn about new campaigns they were working on in California and to keep me updated on the difference they were making to the North Koreans who use LiNK’s networks.
If fundraising sounds like your thing you can start your own Rescue Team and receive the same support and the most current information on the issue! I ran my team for over a year and knew I wanted to step up my involvement after I left South Korea. So it only made sense that my next step was to become a Rescue Team Intern for LiNK to support their international community of fundraising teams! Internships are an amazing opportunity to get the best picture of what is happening with the issue and how you can be a part of team working to find solutions to help real people. Internships run up to 3 times a year and cover a range of positions from Rescue Team interns where you correspond with fundraising teams by email, phone and video calls to keep them supported in their amazing work; to graphic designers where you can work on t-shirt designs, designs for any videos LiNK is working on and also film making. So make sure to click on internships to see what your next step could be and if you speak fluent Korean there are internships in South Korea and South East Asia too!
On top of my regular communications with international teams, I worked on creating resources to add to the materials to support them, I did presentations on the issue in different parts of California or supported my supervisor at her events. Modelling was also a new job within the internship! With the graphic designers making new designs everyone becomes their models to advertise their amazing ideas! I even appeared live on the interwebs to talk more about how I got involved and my internship in general. You can watch that here – the video also includes messages from some of the North Koreans that LiNK has helped as well! However I recommend giving LiNK’s website a good look through, they have a number of videos on the issue, run their own blog and have all the answers to every question you can think of. If they don’t then feel free to drop me a comment below about anything mentioned or you can contact them directly!
So here I was helping an organisation that I had been supported for well over a year in California, living with the other interns at the provided accommodation and I was able to do a fair bit of travelling on top of it all. So if you do have an interest or desire to do something, do some research on it and it could be your ticket to planning out your next travel hot spot or give you an excellent excuse to go somewhere completely new! Interning with LiNK was amazing because they really work to make it an experience for the interns, everything from training, being able to work on personal projects, organising trips out to catch a baseball game or cultural sites, countless free food – especially doughnuts in the office, pot luck (community) lunches to playing beach volleyball after work.
The office in Long Beach places the it near other organisations all doing amazing work so you can find something to interest you and you can suggest it as the next activity! Some of the interns and I went to see the original documentary of the Freedom Writers. It’s also a film but it’s based on a teacher pushing through the barriers of a class that was deemed unteachable because of their home lives in that they were rife with gang activities. It was all based in Long Beach so it was amazing to see the original footage and hear the actual people whom the characters were modelled after speak about how that class saved their lives. Not only did the class save them but it inspired them to help others in various parts of America who are caught up in the lives similar to the one they had. So having been a teacher and working with LiNK the event resonated with me on multiple levels.
I can’t rate my time in California high enough and I won’t repeat, again, why it was amazing but I will add that I came away with new friends dotted about the world to add to the list of international friends that I know I will meet up with again! Before I leave I’m just going to add a book list of the materials that I’ve read about North Korea. It’s not comprehensive by any means but it gives an idea of what to look for and where to start!
“The Aquariums of Pyongyang” – Kang Chol-hwan (2001) – this recounts his experience in the political prison camp number 15 known as Yodok where he was sent with his family. I would start with this first if you want to explore the political prison camps more.
“Escape from Camp 14” – Shin Dong-hyuk (2012) – Shin Dong-hyuk is the only person to have been born into a total control camp and escaped. This was the first book I read on political prison camps and it remains the heaviest book I’ve read so I would work up to this one. However this one left a deep impression on me. It’s also been made into a documentary known as “Camp 14: total control zone” as well. Shin Don-hyuk is one of the few North Korean activists who travel sharing their story at various events. I was lucky enough to hear him speak in Seoul.
“Nothing to Envy” Barbara Demick (2009) – this book is based on a series of interviews with 6 very different North Koreans all dealing with the challenges of their country. This was the first book that gave me an insight to an ordinary North Korean’s life is like compared to those living in political prison camps.
“In Order to Live” Yeonmi Park (2015) – I had heard Yeonmi speak about her life when I was in Seoul but I realised there was so much more to her life when I read her book. The almost impossible odds of her escape and the pain of her journey just reinforced that there’s more that can be done to help these people. Yeonmi is also another outspoken North Korean activist with her own Facebook page if you want to know more of what she’s done.
If you’re less into reading then you can check out Hyeonsoo Lee and Joseph Kim’s TED Talks and you can find them in the video section of LiNK’s website! However if you’d like to ask about anything that’s been mentioned here then please feel free to drop me a comment or contact LiNK directly and if you’ve read/seen material I’d love to know what you think about it too!