TALES OF TWO KOREAS ‘Refugees are the Vanguards of Change’

Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) rescues and resettles North Korean defectors. The U.S.-based NGO’s office in Seoul is headed by Sokeel Park, who regards displaced North Koreans as potential facilitators of change in the communist North. But he feels South Koreans need to change a lot, too.

Sokeel Park, head of the Seoul office of LiNK (Liberty in North Korea), helps rescue and resettle North Korean defectors. LiNk, with its headquarters in Washington, D.C., is a non-government organization established by second-generation Korean-American students in 2004. Courtesy of Park Hong-soon

When 13-year-old Sokeel Park, a Briton of Korean descent, first came to South Korea in 1998, a red sticker on every bus piqued his curiosity. That, his father explained, was an appeal to alert authorities about suspected North Korean agents.

Today, Park is telling South Koreans about their fellow Koreans in the North, but not as an informant. He heads the South Korean branch of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a U.S.-based non-government organization dedicated to rescuing and resettling North Korean defectors. Its efforts are aided by 275 support clubs in 16 countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain and Japan.

At 34, Park is almost the same age as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Park believes their age group holds the keys to meaningful change on the Korean peninsula. If he was born in the North, Park would be in the “jangmadang generation.” Jangmadang (or changmadang in North Korea’s Romanization system) refers to North Korean farmers’ markets and black markets, seedlings of a nascent market economy. Jang is an abbreviation of sijang, meaning “market” and broadly “capitalism”; and madang means “place,” “spot scene,” etc. The markets began to emerge in the 1990s as the North grappled with natural disasters that destroyed crops and the end of assistance from the Soviet Union, which had collapsed.

The jangmadang generation constitutes a quarter of the North Korean population. Growing up with a reeling socialist economic system, this cohort’s socialization differs markedly from previous generations.

Most defectors of this generation claim they never received food rations from the Workers’ Party in their country. Their cultural experience is far removed from that of their parents and grandparents, too. With relatively more access to outside information, these young adults have different values, perceptions and attitudes. The internet and smuggled thumb drives have helped them develop alternative perspectives. South Korean TV shows and Chinese movies increasingly influence their fashion and lifestyle.

Park sees six catalysts, or motives, for change in the North: the jangmadang generation; capitalism; chronic corruption; rising inflow of information; defectors, or refugees, who are in contact with their relatives in the North; and personal networks beyond government control. But to optimize the potential contribution that North Korean resettlers could make, the sentiment of South Koreans must be changed, says Park.

Genesis of LiNK
LiNK is an offspring of KASCON, the Korean American Students Conference, which began in 1989. As interest in North Koreans fleeing their country swelled, their plight became a key topic of KASCON’s annual gatherings. Motivated to go beyond discussions and debates, second-generation Korean-American students at Yale University formed LiNK in 2004 and placed the headquarters in Washington, D.C.

LiNK relies on donations from various organizations, students, businesspeople, religious groups, and its own members. It also sells T-shirts, cookies, bubble teas and rice balls, and organizes fund-raising concerts. It doesn’t receive subsidies from any government.

Most of LiNK’s budget is spent on rescuing North Korean escapees hiding in China. It costs about US$3,000 (about 3.3 million South Korean won) per person. The group brings them through 3,000 miles of secret rescue routes through China and Southeast Asia to safe and free resettlement in South Korea or the United States.

By late 2018, LiNK had rescued more than 1,000 North Korean refugees and helped them resettle. Nearly one third of the total was achieved in 2018 alone.

Photos sent from supporters around the world. LiNK maintains affiliations with 275 support clubs in 16 countries. © LiNK

Sokeel Park (far left) and his LiNK staff work in the Jung District, central Seoul, with a LOVE sculpture in front of their office.© LiNK

Park believes North Korea will be quite different in the next 10 to 20 years.
Accordingly, young South Koreans need to empathize with North Korean people above anything else, he says emphatically.

Vicarious Goal Fulfillment
Park was born to a Korean father and a British mother in Manchester, England, where he grew up. His first trip to South Korea was to accompany his grandmother’s remains after she died in England.

Between high school and university, Park spent a year at Yonsei University’s Korean Language Institute in Seoul. He earned a degree at the University of Warwick, where he majored in psychology, and returned to Seoul in 2007 to work at the Ministry of the Interior and Safety for a year. One of his duties was to facilitate courses on South Korea’s economy and culture for visiting officials from developing countries.

Over the next two years, Park obtained a master’s degree in international relations and international political history at the London School of Economics and began working as an intern at the United Nations headquarters in New York. During this time, Park met North Korean defectors and decided that he would devote himself to working on behalf of North Koreans.

Park’s goal was a permanent job at the UN or the British Foreign Office. It was by sheer chance that he began working for LiNK. He attended a lecture in London by Mike Kim, the founder of Crossing Borders, an NGO that provides humanitarian assistance to North Korean refugees and their children living in China. After the lecture, Kim advised Park to work for LiNK.

In May 2012, when LiNK’s Seoul office opened, Park abandoned his dream of becoming a British diplomat to join the new branch. Besides Park, there are eight staffers. Their main task is to rescue, protect and resettle refugees. Those stranded North Koreans need substantial assistance in adapting to South Korean society due to the wide gulf between the two Koreas in terms of their culture as well as their economic and political systems.

Heading the Seoul Office
Park’s overriding goal is to get young South Koreans involved. He is flabbergasted at how little they know about North Korean defectors, who now number more than 30,000.

Park believes North Korea will be quite different in the next 10 to 20 years. Accordingly, young South Koreans need to empathize with North Korean people above anything else, he says emphatically. At present, they seem to be grossly indifferent and lacking in empathy toward North Koreans, Park says. If empathy toward North Koreans were measured on a scale of 1 to 100, he estimates young South Koreans would barely score 10.

As far as Park is concerned, the long-term chances of meaningful redirection in North Korea will improve with every refugee who resettles in South Korea. He believes North Korean resettlers abroad can be levers to economic and psychological change as they remit money to their relatives back home and secretly communicate with them.

Park suggests the international community use a different lens when scrutinizing North Korea. Discussions about the North typically revolve around Kim Jong-un or Pyongyang’s nuclear arms buildup. Park says the human factor, or the North’s 25 million people, needs to receive more attention. To that end, LiNK regularly releases vivid stories about North Koreans. An example is the 2018 documentary, “The Jangmadang Generation,” which features 10 young refugees. After watching the 52-minute documentary co-directed by Park, South Koreans would comment that they found North Koreans not much different from their friends, Park says.

This year, Park received the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) from the British royal household for his services to UK-Korean relations. That was in recognition of his contributions to aiding defectors and promoting human rights in North Korea. Park passes credit to those who unassumingly help LiNK safely rescue displaced North Koreans.

Kim Hak-soon Journalist and Visiting Professor, School of Media and Communication, Korea University
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer
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