Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) is a Los Angeles-based NGO that works with North Korean refugees. Since it was founded in 2004, LiNK has shepherded more than 400 North Koreans through China and Southeast Asia to South Korea and the United States, where defectors can claim political asylum.
Sokeel Park, LiNK‘s director of research and strategy, makes it clear that his organization does not do “extractions” — meaning they don’t arrange for people inside North Korea to make it out. Instead, LiNK works with refugees who have already fled, or gets “referrals” from defectors who have kept in contact with relatives via smuggled cellphones or other means and know an escape is coming.
With China and North Korea both seeking to arrest defectors — and potentially the people who aid in their escapes — Park says “operational security” is crucial, so the first step upon meeting refugees is vetting. After LiNK feels comfortable the defector is not an agent of the North Korean regime, the organization makes arrangements to smuggle the person from China’s northeastern frontier to a third country, typically in Southeast Asia.
In years past, defectors could simply enter a US embassy or consulate in China and be guaranteed protection. Getting out of the diplomatic outpost and moving on to the next destination required approval from the Chinese government, however, and Beijing began forcing refugees to wait months or years before allowing them to continue on their way. China also cracked down by beefing up security outside the compounds to make it more difficult to get inside.
LiNK has a history of success when it comes to helping defectors escape — Park says their success rate is over 95 percent — but there are no guarantees.