During the 2004 presidential election, North Korea was consistently used as a political football between John Kerry and George W. Bush in debates and media appearances, escalating to an angry phone call from Kerry to The New York Times 50 days before Election Day. Kerry accused the Bush administration of having directed focus away from North Korea’s nuclear threat, “taken their eye off the real ball,” and shifted it to Iraq.
A small group of Korean-American students would have pointed out a different focus problem, however: The United States has grossly ignored the humanitarian crisis suffered by North Korean civilians.
During a Korean-American leadership conference at Yale University, several students realized that reports of famine, inhumane work camps, torture, and ideological enslavement in North Korea no longer captured the attention of U.S. leaders, policymakers, or even humanitarian organizations. Who would bring justice to North Korea? The students decided they would. In 2004, they started Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), the first nonprofit organization solely dedicated to ending North Korea’s humanitarian crisis through education, advocacy, and aid to refugees, according to LiNK’s associate director of awareness Justin Wheeler.
Begun with just five students, today the organization has around 100 chapters in the U.S. and more than 10 chapters elsewhere in the world. “The focus at the time was predominantly on policy,” says Wheeler. “Students realized that there wasn’t really anyone who was focusing on the crisis, so these students took it upon themselves to spread the word, and that’s what keeps us alive today.” Through protests, campus rallies, and calls to congressional leaders for passage of a reauthorization act for North Korean refugees, LiNK—composed largely of second-generation Asian Americans—has proved to be an effective student movement, bringing attention to the forgotten millions suffering in North Korea.
That beginning year also saw LiNK’s first mission to help North Korean refugees get away from the Chinese border and into shelters throughout Southeast Asia and the United States. LiNK’s founder, Adrian Hong, and five other members travelled to the North Korean/Chinese border and led three unaccompanied minors out of China. Today, the young men are happily resettled in the U.S., and the organization continues to house North Korean refugees in undisclosed shelters throughout China and Southeast Asia.
LiNK maintains strict confidentiality about the shelters’ whereabouts, but connects their constituents by updating them on the safety and progress of refugees, particularly when a team of LiNK members and refugees are on the move. Once refugees are brought to safety, LiNK raises funds and provides resources to support successful integration in the refugees’ new home countries. “We use our chapters to help refugees find jobs, learn English, get to doctor’s appointments, etc. Refugees are often placed somewhere around the United States, and often we will have a chapter there,” Wheeler says.
Sadly, since LiNK’s founding in 2004, the situation in North Korea hasn’t changed much. Threats of nuclear war continue to emerge from the country’s leadership. The case of two U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, detained by North Korea and each sentenced in a closed trial to 12 years in labor camps, is emblematic of the kind of harsh treatment that North Korean citizens also suffer. North Korea has remained a political mystery since isolating itself from the world after its 1953 armistice with South Korea—an agreement renounced by Kim Jon Il this May.
Despite these challenges, the leadership and members of LiNK continue to bring liberty to North Koreans and honor their mission statement: to exist “so that one day the crisis in North Korea will not.”
Jeannie Choi was an assistant editor of Sojourners when this article was published.