Korean students Mark Chung ’21 and Michelle Zimmerman ’21 brought homeland politics with them when they founded a Liberty in North Korea Rescue Team on campus.
Liberty in North Korea, or LiNK, is a non-profit organization that provides North Korean refugees with shelter, transportation, and resettlement opportunities, as well as basic necessities, to fund their escape from the North Korean regime.
Through student-led Rescue Teams like this one, LiNK hopes to shift the worldwide focus onto the oppressed North Korean citizens and refugees who suffer daily. “Our main goal for LiNK here at Deerfield is educating and advocating for the North Korean issue.” Chung said. “Here in the US, we’re constantly exposed to media illustrating North Korea through its government and militaristic agenda, and we often forget that millions of North Koreans today face poverty and human rights violations.”
As Zimmerman said, the club wants the international community “to put the people living in the country before the politics.”
Over 1,000 North Koreans defect per year, and for good reason. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea found evidence of the regime’s crimes against humanity, including extermination, torture, murder, enslavement, imprisonment, rape, and forced abortion. Without an exit visa, afforded only to diplomats, citizens cannot legally leave North Korea and must flee the country in the night.
The heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone, a border that serves as a buffer between North and South Korea, prevents direct escape to South Korea and instead forces refugees along a 3,000 mile path through China to Thailand.
Moving through China, escapees face other dangers. As North Korea’s closest ally, China forcibly repatriates all refugees it manages to capture. Extreme punitive measures, such as torture, forced labor, and sexual extortion, await returned defectors in North Korea.
Moreover, North Koreans in China often cannot afford to make the final trip out of the country. As a result, refugees must earn money in unregulated, underground industries, which leaves them susceptible to harassment and blackmail by unscrupulous employers. Currently, thousands of North Koreans in China face this problem.
LiNK extracts refugees from desperate lifestyles like this, moving them from China into Thailand. From there, LiNK has resettled 939 North Koreans. Although most choose to move to South Korea, others stay in southeast Asia or even relocate to the United States.
Currently, the LiNK group here on campus has been working on raising awareness for the North Korean issue. To do its part in this crisis, the Rescue Team at Deerfield holds weekly meetings and plans to organize several events to raise awareness for the refugees. Throughout the next few months, they hope to start larger projects, such as awareness runs, concerts, and guest speakers, such as humans rights activist and public speaker Yeonmi Park, who defected through China in 2007.
They plan on advocating for this issue both through these projects and social media, with the ultimate goal for this year being to expand LiNK within and beyond the Deerfield community, ultimately helping to spark conversations and discussions throughout campus.
They are already fulfilling this goal, as club members’ perception of North Korean politics has already shifted from the regime to its people and the suffering they endure.
Chung said, “Our mission in bringing LiNK to the Deerfield community is to change this narrative, and bring into light the North Korean people themselves.”