For years, Joy Kim couldn’t understand why her mother left her behind when she defected from North Korea. Until she found herself in the same position, said Kim as she spoke alongside three other North Korean refugees at the Liberty in North Korea at UCLA’s second annual “The Stories that Link Us” event. The program, started last year, trains North Korean refugees to be advocates and storytellers in hopes of inspiring others to take action.
“Each [has] their own defection story and LiNK just helps them craft their stories and become really good storytellers so that they can bring other people along,” said Becky Chung, a special events and donor relations intern for LiNK. The refugees spend three months in the United States, during which time they travel to different states to speak to students, community leaders and government officials.
“I think it’s very easy to only see North Korea as an evil country, as part of this axis of evil, as people say,” said Ashley Ng, president of UCLA’s LiNK chapter and a fourth-year global studies student. “But I think this event does a good job of showing that there’s North Korean youth born in the ’90s that are just human like us and had the unfortunate circumstance of being born in North Korea (where they faced) human rights violations.”
Many prejudices exist against North Korean refugees living in South Korea, said Dasom Kim, a refugee who escaped North Korea with the help of LiNK before settling in South Korea in 2014. For example, North Koreans are paid less than their South Korean counterparts for the same work, she said.
Jeongyol Ri, a student at Seoul National University who defected while he was in Hong Kong for a math competition, shared the same sentiment. After resettling in South Korea, he started looking for tutoring jobs to pay for food and housing. The parents of a young boy were interested in hiring him, but after they figured out he was from North Korea, they had to rethink their decision, he said.
Ilhyeok Kim, now a student studying political science and diplomacy at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said he was shocked by the number of candidates that appeared on election ballots. When he voted in North Korea, he said he only had one candidate to choose from.
Despite the benefits of life in South Korea, some fellows also missed aspects of their life in North Korea. Ri confessed to yearning for the camaraderie he felt in North Korea, where he knew each and every single person who lived in his apartment building. In South Korea, people are so busy, he said, that he doesn’t have the time to get to know his neighbors.