A Vital LiNK: How One Group Is Helping Change the Narrative on North Korea


by SUEVON LEE | @suevlee

Before he ever set foot in America, Joseph Kim had to learn how to pass for an American teen. Be loud and rowdy around others his age. Speak indifferently to authorities. Wear a baseball cap tilted sideways. Draw out the word “yeah.”

For the young North Korean defector, this was no ordinary crash course in acting “American.” This was his key to safety—specifically, reaching the U.S. consulate in Shenyang by train without arousing the suspicion of Chinese officials.

Giving those explicit instructions was Adrian Hong, a Korean American who formed a distinct impression: “He was young, his hair was cut in a stylish way, and his clothes were American and very hip. Everything about him, in fact, was cool,” describes Kim in his memoir, Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America, written with Stephan Talty and published in June.

As co-founder of the U.S.-based humanitarian group Liberty in North Korea, or LiNK, Hong was Kim’s first exposure to the Western world back in 2006, and just one of many people he would meet committed to North Korean refugee rescue and resettlement.

Kim, then 16, had crossed a frozen river alone to flee his homeland and enter China, worn down by hunger and poverty as an orphaned teen. Life in China was still punishing—going door to door in search of food, he was often turned away. Though eventually shown pity by an elderly Christian, as a defector, Kim faced a constant threat of being forcibly returned to North Korea where unspeakable punishment could await. So when, at a shelter, Hong offered to help him get to the U.S., it seemed the best option.

The 20-hour journey by train to the U.S. consulate was incident-free. Nearly a decade later, Kim lives in New York, where he is studying political science at a community college and considering a transfer to a university. “I spent a lot of my time wondering about Adrian and the others who had helped me,” Kim reflects in his book. “Why would they do such a thing, take such risks for people they’d never met? It seemed important to me to figure this out, a clue to the world I was going to.”

Helping bring refugees like Joseph Kim out of China while helping them transition to their new homes—mainly, South Korea, but also the U.S. for a small minority—is the bread and butter of LiNK’s work since its founding 11 years ago.

Launched by two Korean American friends from L.A. to raise awareness about North Korea by mobilizing Korean Americans on college campuses across the country, the organization has evolved from its early, patchwork-like structure to a bona fide nonprofit buoyed by organized leadership, steady fundraising and a clarified focus.

To date, the group has successfully facilitated 390 refugee “rescues,” which take place along a 3,000-mile route that starts in China, passes through Southeast Asia and ultimately ends at a foreign embassy or consulate, via a “modern underground railroad” formed by LiNK’s contacts on the ground.

The journey can take anywhere between five days to two weeks, costs $3,000 to fund and is incredibly risky—getting caught can lead to repatriation to North Korea, though the group has a 95 percent success rate with its rescue missions. Stateside, the nonprofit also engages in grassroots campaigns to change people’s thinking on North Korea, away from nuclear brinksmanship or kooky dictators, and onto the North Korean people themselves. In a media climate focused on the eccentricities of Kim Jong-un, Dennis Rodman’s Vice-chronicled visits, footage of militaristic automatons and nuclear missiles, LiNK counteracts by sharing defector stories and short documentaries on its sleek website, which captures 40,000 unique page visits per month.

Its message is straightforward: people over politics, as it seeks to humanize a population consisting of 24 million.

“When we meet these North Korean people and I sit here and listen to the stories of what they overcame—their escape and the fact that they made it this far—I tell them, ‘You know what, I don’t think I could’ve made it,’” says Hannah Song, LiNK’s 33-year-old president and CEO since 2008. Seated outside at a cafe in Torrance, Calif., near LiNK’s headquarters, she adds, “They are so incredibly resilient and intelligent.”

Staff and interns convene for a meeting inside the group’s headquarters. (Photo by Mike Lee)

The group’s office is located in a nondescript office strip mall, with no obvious signage indicating its presence aside from a van parked outside covered in the Liberty in North Korea logo.

In the small entryway, a side wall is painted solid red, decorated with hand-designed slogans and artwork featuring such phrases as “Accelerate change,” “Working with the People” and “What Better Time than Now?” Through a narrow hallway, in the main space, young headphone-wearing employees tap away on laptops; against one wall is taped a large map of the U.S.—push-pinned with locations of the group’s recent outreach.

And just beyond a metal spiral staircase, within a dimmed, transparent, glass-enclosed space, the creative and programing team is making upgrades to the website, reviewing analytics and managing its social media, the atmosphere evoking a tech startup.

What’s notable are the number of diverse faces sitting in front of these screens, both Asian and non. For an organization founded at the Korean American Student Conference, or KASCON, it has come to reach a much broader segment of youth in their teens, 20s and early 30s.

That could be a credit to the emphasis on grassroots engagement and mobilization led by Justin Wheeler, the group’s energetic 30-year-old vice president, who’s spent time along the Korea-China border and been part of seven rescue missions. He acknowledges how much technology is part of this equation.

“We rely so much on being able to share stories, being able to communicate, being able to build our own network and raise funds. So definitely, it’s like our business model is wrapped up in the use of the Internet and how can we maximize it,” Wheeler says. “It’s basically like a millennial-led organization—[the Internet] is just what we grew up with, so that’s to our advantage.”

Part of the group’s strategy includes training and sending so-called “nomads” all over the country to host engagement events at schools, churches and places of community on the topic of North Korea. Globally, it’s fostered the growth of 350 so-called “rescue teams” in 16 countries to fundraise on a grassroots level for refugee programs.

The group also works to personalize the act of donating—if one gives $3,000 or more, they are “matched” to an actual, specific rescue.

How often are these taking place? “It’s probably just best to assume there’s always a rescue mission underway,” Wheeler says. “It’s a big thing of what we do, and we have teams and partners and networks that are working on this.”

If Wheeler is the mobilization guy, then Song, as the group’s head, is in charge of the big picture. Based in New York City, but traveling every so often to the main office in California, the Michigan native is credited with turning the organization into a legitimate, functioning nonprofit that can pay its two dozen employees salaries and benefits; offer internships; award sabbaticals; and even host annual team-building employee retreats.

It wasn’t always that way: the organization was, at one point, driven more by the passions that fueled the underlying cause than by a sound structural framework to prop it up and keep it sustainable.

Early in 2004, Adrian Hong, then an undergrad and student activist at Yale, and friend Paul “PK” Kim, a student at Occidental College and budding standup comedian, had met at Blink Cafe, a bar in L.A.’s Koreatown, to discuss what they could do to raise awareness about North Korea.

“The fact there were even two Koreas, the fact that North Korea had a communist system, and was totalitarian—just the basic, basic details were not well known, much less the human rights crisis. Even the caricatures of the leadership were not as prevalent as they are now,” says Hong, in a phone interview with KoreAm from his home in New York. “It just wasn’t media fodder; it really was an uphill battle.”

Hence, LiNK—whose name was inspired by the establishment where that discussion between Hong and Kim took place—was born. “It started off as Liberation North Korea, but we decided the word ‘Liberation’ was too serious, so it became ‘Liberty,’” Kim tells KoreAm by phone.

Untitled-1Left: Liberty in North Korea brought together 200 students from around the U.S. for a two-day summit in Summer 2014 to learn about the changes happening in North Korea. Right: Wheeler speaks at the Summer 2014 summit. (Photos courtesy of LiNK)

That year, the nascent organization’s debut event went big at KASCON: a North Korean defector delivered a speech, Kim wrote and performed a song about the region, and enthusiasm among young Korean American students spread. The spirit was, “‘We’re gonna reunite the country, we’re gonna go in there and save everybody,’” Kim recalls. “I sang, people were weeping, everybody was holding hands, it was like one of those ‘We Are the World’ moments.”

Within a couple of years, nearly 70 LiNK chapters had formed at colleges all over the U.S. Hong continued to build on this momentum once graduating, setting up the group’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. “The intention was to be by policymakers, to be able to talk to governments and effect change … inform them of what’s happening. All of our energy was spent briefing governments, parliaments, foreign ministries, what life was like for North Koreans,” he says.

But it was an uphill battle. D.C. could be an impenetrable place. The number of local chapters made it difficult to manage the group’s messaging. And it was still all volunteer-run. Kim, the co-founder, took a step back, realizing what the group needed was more than just fiery passion.

“It’s a wealth of knowledge you had to know to keep up; you literally had to be a scholar on North Korea to answer questions,” he says. “These really brilliant college students, they would come up and ask me these geopolitical questions, and I’m like, ‘I’m so sorry, I have no idea.’”

It was while she was a student at Rutgers University when Song first got involved with the group. She had picked up The Aquariums of Pyongyang, a 2001 account of a North Korean political prisoner’s life, and a curiosity was sparked.

“When I read his book, I was shocked to find out [human rights abuses] was something that was happening in present day,” she says. “I think the book really just struck me because I knew my grandmother was from North Korea, and it was surprising to find out that something like this was going on in a place where she was from.”

Song attended a LiNK benefit concert, began volunteering at Rutgers and helped organize LiNK events in New York City. Even upon graduating and working a demanding job in advertising at Ogilvy, she found herself spending her free nights and weekends working with the group, even traveling to the North Korea-China border.

In 2006, Song decided to quit her day job and go work full-time for LiNK, as Hong’s deputy-in-command, despite the fact that there were only three employees and they were all working without pay. She waitressed on the side to support herself.

“I really liked my [corporate] job actually, I really enjoyed what I was
doing,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I realized that what I had the opportunity to do with LINK was actually far more important and meaningful to me.”

When Hong decided to leave the organization in 2008, he asked Song to take over. (He is not involved in the group today, though he remains an active voice on North Korean policy issues, penning op-eds and guest columns in various publications.)

Then just 27, taking over the organization was not something she had planned for, Song says. She was perfectly happy supporting what needed to be done, and her biggest fear was that, under her direction, the group would “go under.”

In fact, the opposite happened. Since that transition, the organization underwent a reset. Using what she learned in her corporate advertising job, Song brought much-needed infrastructure to the group. She implemented an employee policy guide. She reached out to other companies and organizations. She met and spoke with Wheeler, a California-based community organizer with an international relations degree who was leading his own North Korean refugee group at the time; she came away impressed with his background and success in mobilizing youth.

Their visions aligned so much, the pair decided to merge forces—prompting the group’s relocation from D.C. to L.A. in 2009.

“LINK had been good at mobilizing the Korean American community at that time, but we weren’t really good at getting outside the Korean American community,” Song says. “For us, the North Korea issue is not a Korean issue per se. That was really one of our biggest challenges—[to reach outside just Korean Americans].”

Hannah Song confers with a staff employee.

Since its transformation in 2009, LiNK has made impressive financial strides. While more than 70 percent of its annual revenue comes from grassroots fundraising and online campaigns, the rest is from high net-worth donors, legacy donors and social justice organizations such as the Grace & Mercy Foundation, a private family foundation. In 2014, according to its financial statements, it raked in $2.2 million in donations and grants (in comparison, that number was $695,000 five years ago). Since 2010, the nonprofit has seen a 32 percent year over year growth in revenue.

“Bottom line, she kicks ass,” Kim says about Song. “The organization wouldn’t exist without Adrian—he took it to one level, but [she] took it to a whole ‘nother level, organizing it, legitimizing it.”

As the only U.S.-based group organized around this issue, LiNK has been able to tap into the social consciousness of young generations and stand on its own without a religious platform.

“Most of the other North Korean relief groups, while they do great work, are pretty much focused within the Korean churches throughout the U.S.,” Paul Song, a physician, LiNK board member and donor and spouse of television correspondent Lisa Ling, tells KoreAm. “No one’s going outside the Korean community so I think [LiNK] is very effective at that. You have to preach outside the choir.”

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Jason Li, third from left, and Jessica Kwen, second from right, co-founded a LiNK chapter at Glen A. Wilson High School. (Photo courtesy of Jason Li)

A model example is Jason Li, a sophomore at Stanford who, five years ago, co-founded a LiNK chapter with friend Jessica Kwen at Glen A. Wilson High School in Hacienda Heights, in the San Gabriel Valley. The group hosted screenings and discussions of documentaries around North Korea, raised $10,000 to fund rescue missions and was even invited by LiNK to travel to South Korea to learn about its operations abroad.

“I never really understood North Korea and I only understood kind of what the media fed me,” Li, who is Chinese American, says in a phone interview. “They always list a caricature of a crazy, militaristic country with these almost laughable dictators. I had a very simple idea of North Korea. What brought me to LiNK was that
they told really powerful stories.”

Li, 19, a potential creative writing and public health major, says the experience fostered his interest in the humanities and a possible career path that could involve human rights and community organizing.

“It taught me how to make people care about things and how to connect with people. It was really inspiring to see how our school came together for a country that seems so far removed from ours,” he says. “That passion never existed before we had LiNK at our school. That was really humbling and inspiring to see.”

F-Link-AS15-SokeelLaptop copy
Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy who is based in Seoul, works on his laptop during a visit to the office in California.

Given the number of North Korean defectors in South Korea—approximately 28,000—LiNK also operates an office in Seoul that has five full-time staffers plus interns. Their office in Itaewon is anchored by the head of research and strategy, 30-year-old Sokeel Park, a policy wonk from Manchester, England whose father is Korean.

Each North Korean defector who arrives in South Korea undergoes a three-month government-run transition program and subsequently receives a subsidy to begin their new lives. But, assistance can be hard to find. LiNK helps defectors locate and apply for such assistance and provides a sense of community and support during that transition period. It’s also helping bring more awareness to the defector issue in South Korea.

While it’s not the only organization doing this kind of work in the country, it is the only American one. Park, who is fluent in Korean, uses a Korean term, shingihada (novel or interesting), to describe that advantage.

“We’re slightly different than a lot of the groups. … The first thing is, we’re international,” he says, speaking over Skype. “Overall, in South Korea, there is interest in North Korea, but at the same time, there is apathy and a feeling of, ‘We’ve heard it all before.’ So we need to introduce new ways of talking about North Korea, new concepts, and something that people maybe haven’t thought of before.”

Untitled-1Left: Hyeonsoo Lee, a North Korean defector, speaking at the Asian American Journalists Association in San Francisco on Aug. 20. Right: Joseph Kim, a North Korean defector who, in 2005, fled to China on his own at 16. With LiNK’s help, he came to the United States. (Photos by Suevon Lee)

That includes not relaying just the tragic stories, but emphasizing positivity and hope, he says. It requires some market research, being attuned to the way things are perceived in the country and moving away from the emphasis on the polarizing issue of reunification.

The group recognizes how challenging the transition can be for North Korean refugees, who are required to integrate into a drastically new environment than the one they knew—on all manners of social, economic and technological levels.

“It’s not just playing catch-up, it’s being competitive,” whether that’s in the U.S or South Korea, Song, the group’s head, says. “It’s catching up, then treading water.”

That struggle is reflected in North Koreans’ stories. In Under the Same Sky, the now 24-year-old Joseph Kim recounts his extreme isolation while living with a foster couple in Richmond, Va., and adjusting to U.S. schools. Hyeonseo Lee, another defector who also wrote a memoir, The Girl with Seven Names, and whose TED talk about her escape has been viewed more than 4.2 million times on YouTube, is frank about second-class treatment of North Koreans by their compatriots just across the border.

“Sometimes I [felt] like a foreigner,more so than a foreigner living in South Korea,” Lee, 31, said during a talk at the Asian American Journalists Association conference in San Francisco in mid-August. “It’s difficult for North Korean defectors, very difficult, to find jobs. It’s a tragedy for North Koreans: when they’re looking for jobs, they’re saying they’re Korean-Chinese.”

“It’s changed, but still there’s a long way to go,” she adds of South Koreans’ attitudes toward their neighbors.

There have been other issues. Shin Dong-hyuk briefly became the most famous North Korean refugee in the world, but some details of his story have been discredited. Many of the horrific aspects of his narrative have been confirmed, though, and remain a vital look into life inside North Korea’s prison camps. LiNK and Song played vital roles in Shin’s transition from refugee to activist, a process that did not always go smoothly.

As former Washington Post writer Blaine Harden wrote in his 2013 book about Shin, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, Song was “frustrated that Shin sometimes avoided responsibility, expected special treatment, and made little effort to learn English, which limited his usefulness as a spokesman in the United States. The strain was probably inevitable. It certainly was not unusual.”

Despite these obstacles, LiNK’s leaders remain committed to helping the North Korean people accelerate change in their homeland. They point to the burgeoning younger generation, known as the jangmadang generation, for the word “market,” where they’ve learned to buy and sell in the black market and broken rules to survive.

“They don’t remember a North Korea where government provided,” Wheeler says. “If you ask any North Korean about how they survived in North Korea, they’ll talk about the markets. It’s a young generation that doesn’t share the same sentiment towards the regime as their parents.”

So when young defectors like Joseph Kim may wonder, why would certain individuals take such risks for people they’ve never met? Perhaps Song’s words sum it up best: “At the end of the day, our vision—what we’re working toward—is our name. It’s ‘Liberty in North Korea,’ she says. “It’s not that we will bring liberty to North Korea, it’s not that we will liberate the North Koreans, it’s that we believe the North Korean people will achieve their liberty. We believe—I believe—that it will be in our lifetime.”


This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)